In the Footsteps of the Human Rights [Archives:1998/03/Reportage]

January 19 1998

Committee of the Consultative Council: Trying to Make Yemeni Prisons MORE LIVEABLE
Prisons serve an important function in all societies and all ages, especially in urban centers where crime is rife. All through the ages, all kinds of human civilizations paid special attention to prisons. The prisoners’ living conditions, however, varied from one civilization to another. In the Greek and Roman civilizations, prisoners were treated as slaves to be used as laborers or fed to the lions according to the whim and fancy that took their jailers and masters.
In a sharp contrast to that, the Arab-Islamic civilization had its set, more civilized rules to treat prisoners. After the famous battle of Badr, the Prophet (P) ordered that every captured infidel is to be set free if he teaches ten Muslim children to read and write. Prisoners of war were never killed, and ordinary prisoners were treated fairly – never as slaves.
This humanitarian situation, however, witnessed some up and down trends during the long reign of the Umyyad and Abbasyd dynasties. The dark period that followed the fall of Baghdad saw a nominally downward spiral as far as prisoners were concerned. With the coming of the 20th century and its many social and technological developments, respect for human rights assumed a paramount position. Being a prisoner, for whatever reason, does not meant that a person is denied his or her basic human rights. Various nations, though, differ in their general outlook regarding human rights. Prisoners’ rights may sometimes be violated because of certain political reasons, but lack of financial resources and the general backwardness and lack of awareness on part of the jailers and the general public are often to blame. This is more so in the so-called ‘Third World.’ Social reformers in every nation have prison reform as one of their top priorities, irrespective of their political affiliations or cultural outlook. The recent prison tour conducted by the Consultative

Council’s Human Rights, Liberties and NGOs Committee, headed by Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, uncovered numerous facts about prison conditions in Yemen.
Lasting from 2nd to 10th of January, the tour included the prisons of Sanaa, Hodeida, Taiz, Hajja, and Aden. The new truths that were brought to light by the prison visits can very well become the basis of a comprehensive prison reform program. Some of these facts are as follows:
1- At any one point in time, the number of inmates in Yemeni prisons is around 10,000. The annual turnover (detainees staying for a short time), however, is around 100,000. 2- Most Yemeni prisons were built during a time of a different culture and political conditions. The current universal concepts of human rights had not taken the hold they have nowadays. For example, most prison buildings do not take care of the basic human needs such as going to the bathroom. 3- Overcrowding, up to several times the building’s original capacity, is a chronic problem in Yemeni prisons. 4- Most prisons have not enough facilities and cell-blocks to segregate the prisoners according to felony or age. Hardened criminals were found sitting alongside indebted businessmen and juvenile delinquents. 5- Various types of diseases especially dermatological ones such as scabies are endemic in most Yemeni prisons. Proper medical care is quite lacking, to say the least. Few AIDS cases have also been reported in some Yemeni prisons. 6- The government tries to provide prison inmates with ample meals and bedding, but these remain below standard. Prison food does not provide the inmates with their basic daily caloric needs. 7- Dangerous criminals are sometimes shackled, hands and feet, and kept in inhumane conditions. 8- In all cases, a prisoner is under the mercy of his or her jailers who should be propitiated at all times. Even to go to the bathroom, sometimes, an inmate has to pay the jailer in money or with favors. 9- Yemeni and foreign prisoners are kept together. Foreign prisoners, from Arab countries and the Horn of Africa, constitute about 6% of prison inmates in Yemen. 10- Most prisons have separate cell-blocks for women inmates who now number around 300 in all of Yemen. Very few or no female wardens and supervisors manage the women sections in Yemeni prisons. 11- Misery is sometimes not confined to the prisoners, but extends to their jailers as well. 12- There no rehabilitation facilities within prisons to train the inmates on simple handicrafts. The only exception is the Hodeida prison where illiteracy-eradication classes are being conducted since the beginning of 1997. 13- There are not enough qualified prison officers and wardens. Also lacking are cooks, cleaners, plumbers, electricians, social workers and, most important of all, resident doctors and health workers. Volunteer doctors conduct weekly visits to some prisons, and receive no pay for their efforts. 14- Despite their end of term, many prisoners are not released promptly. This is especially so for female prisoners who are only freed when one of their relatives comes to receive them.
Some of the prison visitors and security officials made the following statements to the Yemen Times.
1- Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, head of the Human Rights, Liberties and NGOs Committee of the Consultative Council, said: “We’d like to thank all the governors, district attorneys, and prison officials who cooperated with us by giving their permission to visit these prisons and look through their records. “We were able to find immediate solutions for some of the most pressing problems and suggest the appropriate solutions for other chronic problems. Violations, of some type or another occur in almost all Yemeni prisons. The important issue, however, is not only in bringing these violations to public attention, but also in creating a productive cooperation among the various organs concerned – the prosecutors, judiciary, and police. “The good thing is that the process of prison reform has started. Society as a whole is looking forward to a better future when democracy and respect for human rights are at their best. This should certainly be reflected in the state of our prisons as well. We must all cooperate to achieve that.”
Dr. Abu Bakar Al-Qirbi, the Consultative Council member, said: “The aim of these visits is not to look for fame or to condemn some officials. We need to identify a wrong situation that must be rectified. Prisons are supposed to be ‘schools’ to reform the wrongdoers and make better citizens out of them. They are certainly not for severe punishment or torture. “We found that all officials concerned, inside and outside prisons, were very willing to cooperate in order to find satisfactory solutions to achieve reform. To acknowledge that there are some shortcomings is the beginning of the reform process. Reform should also include the judiciary, the prosecutor offices, the security apparatus and other relevant organs.”
Sheikh Saleh Ba-Thawwab, a businessman, said: “This has been a good opportunity to see at first hand the conditions in Yemeni prisons. We hope that the government will review the cases of some of the people who are unjustly put into jail. We also call on the state and all benevolent people to intervene on behalf of those who are imprisoned for financial cases. Criminal cases are a different matter altogether. “We facilitated the release of a young man, under 20, who is imprisoned for petty theft.”
Mr. Mohammed Saleh Toraiq, the Director of General Security in Aden, said: “We welcome the esteemed visitors and thank them for their concern for the conditions inside Yemeni prisons. We have provided the visiting committee with all possible help and permitted them to freely look through the Aden prison records. “They have suggested many solutions for the prison’s chronic problems, and have helped solve the cases of some prisoners and set them free. Upon visiting the prison, we found the District Attorney, the deputy head of the Judicial Inspection organization and other officials inspecting the prison conditions. “We are all part of this society and must all work together for a better future for our nation.”
Yemen Times also interviewed Mr. Sharaf Al-Moushki, the Director of General Security in Hodeida. Q: What are the most prevalent crimes in Hodeida? A: One of the most widespread crimes in Hodeida is usurping plots of land belonging to the state or to private individuals. Usurpers are referred to the courts of law or to other relevant organs such as the Housing and Urban Planning Office. Robberies and car thefts are dealt with swiftly. As you may have noticed, there are about 90 car thieves in the Hodeida prison, one of whom stole 26 cars. During 1996, the Hodeida police was able to retrieve 119 stolen cars and return them to their owners. Last year, we returned 86 stolen cars to their rightful owners.
Q: How are illegal immigrants and refugees coming from neighboring countries treated when they are arrested? A: Those who enter Yemen illegally are detained – not imprisoned. We then inform their embassies and the Ministry of Interior to facilitate their deportation. ý
Q: How do you deal with smuggling? A: The border police and the coast guards perform checks, go on regular patrols, arrest suspected smugglers and confiscate their contraband goods.