Where children are sentenced to death
March 6th, 2013
10:43 AM ET

Where children are sentenced to death

By Priyanka Motaparthy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Priyanka Motaparthy is a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of “Look at Us With a Merciful Eye,” a new report about death sentences in Yemen for juvenile offenders. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

I met Hind in a prison in Yemen almost a year ago. Nineteen years-old, she wore an orange hooded sweatshirt, a long denim skirt, and the sullen expression of a teenager who trusts that no one is on her side. “Hind doesn’t want to talk to anyone,” a social worker told me.

Hind al-Barti was a child offender – under 18 at the time of the alleged crime – on death row in the Central Prison in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. She was convicted of a murder committed when she was 15, according to her birth certificate. Hind denied committing the crime, but didn’t want her story to be included in a report I was researching about child offenders facing execution in Yemen, fearing revenge by the murder victim’s family. Nine months later, on December 3, with little warning, a government firing squad executed her.

We examined the cases of 22 other alleged child offenders on death row in prisons across Yemen. At least three have exhausted all forms of appeal and, like Hind, could be executed without warning at any minute. Yemen’s 1994 penal code bans execution of child offenders. So does international law to which Yemen is a party. But these executions continue – the government has executed 15 in the past five years.

Yemen is one of only four countries in the world known to have executed juvenile offenders in the past five years. The others are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. It’s been a year since a new government took office following a popular uprising, pledging to move Yemen toward democracy and rule of law. But these promises have meant little for the child offenders in Yemen’s prisons, as they see new death sentences handed down on mere teenagers, who share their own stories of police abuse and judicial corruption.

A variety of factors mean the law carries little weight, including judges and prosecutors who simply disregard the ban, political and tribal pressure on government officials to approve the executions, and widespread skepticism in Yemeni society that children deserve special protection in murder cases.

More from CNN: Child workers given back childhood

Many child offenders end up on Yemen’s death row because they lack birth certificates – Yemen has one of the world’s lowest birth registration rates, and many Yemenis I met knew only their birth year, if that. But some child offenders on death row do have documentation proving their age. Some told me that judges and prosecutors simply ignored their evidence. One young man said a judge told him: “Even if you are 10 years-old, the punishment for murder is death.”

Three of the six alleged child offenders we interviewed said that police had tortured them, forcing them to confess. Walid Haikal, whose execution orders were signed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and could be carried out at any moment, told me he was 14 and in the seventh grade when the police arrested him and a group of men from his village for murder in 2000. “[The police would] shackle us like a chicken, put metal between our legs and do falaka. This means beating you with a wooden stick on the bottom of your feet. Of course you’d want to confess anything,” he told me.

In January, the young men and teenagers in Sanaa’s Central Prison decided they had had enough. When one of them, Nadim al-Aza’azi, was sentenced to death for a murder committed three years ago when he was 15, his fellow inmates went on a hunger strike. Seventy-seven signed a public letter demanding an end to death sentences and executions for child offenders, the creation of an impartial committee for determining age in past and future criminal cases, fair trial protections for all children, and trials only in juvenile courts for alleged child offenders. Human Rights Watch supports similar recommendations.

A few days ago, I returned to Sanaa Central Prison and found the hunger strike had ended. I asked a social worker who regularly visits the prison what had inspired such a dramatic action now, when many had been imprisoned for years.  “Even in prison, the revolution had its effects,” she told me, referring to Yemen’s popular uprising in 2011. “They saw and heard what was happening outside in the square, on the streets. They wanted their rights too.”

The boys and young men I met in a Sanaa jail have set out a clear plan for Yemen’s new government to make good on its promises of reform. “I want the world to know that here they are executing [juvenile offenders],” one young inmate said.

On March 7 in London, donor governments known as the Friends of Yemen will meet to follow up on last year’s pledges of $7.8 billion in aid for Yemen’s new government, and to address challenges to reform. Should these donors – including U.K., the host – wish to be true friends to Yemen, they will urge Yemen’s leaders to listen to these forgotten voices. They will insist that Yemeni authorities abide by laws meant to protect Yemeni lives – not least of all, from unjust executions at the hands of their own government.


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soundoff (151 Responses)
  1. NotSurprised

    Is anyone seriously surprised that a Middle East country is pulling this kind of crap? These people are barbarians and their crappy little religion is at the center of it.

    March 8, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
  2. Bennycat

    In the US, children as young as 13 are sentenced to life in prison, effectively eliminating anything approaching normal life. Realistically, is that any better than a death sentence??

    March 8, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
    • QuiGonBong

      Not for the citizens who have to foot the bill for as long as the worthless POS is incarcerated.

      March 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  3. sproggins

    Why is it OK to kill a kid before they're born but not until after they're 18?

    March 8, 2013 at 11:14 am | Reply
  4. Knucklehead

    Well he!!, let's give them Most-Favored-Nation trading status then...

    March 8, 2013 at 11:20 am | Reply
  5. Bryan

    I clicked on this thinking it would be about Texas

    March 8, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  6. Ann

    The United States and other Western "developed" countries continue to protract childhood by enfantalizing people until now persons up to age 18 are called "children" – even though physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally they bare little resemblance to 5 and 10 year olds. Puberty distinguishes children from adulthood physically and reasonably this distinction ought to be recognized in categorizing a person as a child or an adult. Culture also determines whether a person of a particular age is a child or ab adult. A 16-year-old in the middle class US is treated as a child whereas in many parts of the world 16-year-olds have children of their own and live an adult's life. And, for that matter, many 16-year-olds in the US who live in poverty or in wealth also live the lives of adults at 16. This article is nothing more than colonialist drek.

    March 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply
    • Talib

      Ann, you're generalizing the global community, and your statement is inaccurate. Biometrically, neuroscientists have verified the human brain is not fully developed until an individual reaches their early twenties, which has a drastic impact upon their decision making capabilities. For example, younger people (16-23) have a proclivity of driving much faster and more recklessly than people who are 25 years of age. This is partly due to the brain's inability to conceptualize and appreciate consequences, thereby possessing a sense of invunerability. There exists corpus empirical data substantiating this fact on a global scale, reflecting that cultural consideration and influences lacks any significant degree of salience towards the culmination of the studies.

      March 9, 2013 at 10:55 am | Reply
  7. Barry G.

    There's nothing like having one form of justice for the rich (privileged and well-connected) and one for the poor (disadvantaged and disenfranchised). How sad.

    The good news is, God will judge everyone justly, in his own time. (See: Kohelloth)

    March 8, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  8. John

    Thou Shalt Not Kill.

    March 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  9. Cindy

    It is a blessing to be born and live in the USA.

    March 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  10. sanjosemike

    Just what the World needs: Another failed Muslim Country.


    March 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  11. Jim

    When I saw the headline I wondered which country from the Middle East this would be.

    March 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  12. Sam

    I understand by far the vast majority of Muslims abhor what happens to these children but do notice that the four countries where it happens in are Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Sudan are all some of the strictist Islamic countries in the world and that definitely has to have an impact on it.

    March 8, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  13. Anthony

    That is a lie! They executed a 16 year old female in the late 50's or 60's in georgia. The first female ever executed in the US.

    March 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  14. Sherri

    Yemen is one of only four countries in the world known to have executed juvenile offenders in the past five years. The others are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. (quote from article). Notice anything about these countries? Think.

    March 8, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • Talib

      Sherri, what is your point? You're generalizing the entire Muslim world consisting of more than 50 nations according to the actions of 4 countries? This is absurd. Should I generalize the Christian world as being hyper-violent as a result of the US being a military state in which not a single US generation since the American Revolution has ever experienced anything other than multiple military conflicts, most being acts of unprovoked aggression? Or that the Western Christian world was responsible for both World Wars culminating in the slaughter of tens of millions, with the Second World War caused by Adolf Hitler who justified his acts of brutality by employing Christianity and the Bible in both his speeches and book Mein Kamf? Or the US is the only country in the UN, along with Somalia to refuse signing the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibiting the incarceration of children under 18 years of age without the possibility of parole for any crime? Or, the US is the only country to sentence 11 year olds to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole? Or, that the US has the largest incarcerated population in the world, exceeding China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran? Or, the US has the highest rate of fire arm homicides among the developed world? Or, the US has a higher crime rate per capita than all of the Arab Muslim countries combined? Or, the US has recently invaded and occupied a sovereign state (Iraq) under false pretenses, against the will of the international community and Iraqi citizens, and is responsible for the murder of more than one million innocent civilians; the majority consisting of women, children, and the elderly? By simply evaluating these real factors, one could easily argue that Christianity and densely Christian nations are far more violent than Muslim nations. If I recall correctly, only one Muslim country has invaded another sovereign state within the last two decades. Whereas, the US has invaded several countries from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Fortunately, I'm intelligent enough to avoid such fallible constructs, unfortunately you are not. Let's not discuss the enslavement of millions of Africans and forcibly converting them to Christianity, along with other indigenous populations on the planet-forcing them to either convert or be slaughtered. The Qur'an states, "there is no compulsion in religion." Meaning in English, you cannot force people to convert to Islam, which the majority of objective historians and Middle East experts now conclude that overwhelming majority of conversions to Islam occurred as a result of trade and interaction, rather than the myth of "the sword." Sadly, the Christians did not only convert others by the sword, but also by the whip and the bullet. If Christianity is your religion, I highly advise you to research the crimes committed by the adherents of your own faith and condemn those actions prior to criticizing the "religious others."

      March 9, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply
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