Lawyer Shatha Nasir condemns early marriage, calls for equal blood money [Archives:2007/1071/Reportage]

July 23 2007

By: Faisal As-Safwani
Shatha Nasir, one of Yemen's most prominent human and women's rights advocates. Nasir is particularly concerned with the defense of women who have been wrongfully accused of a crime. During the interview, she revealed her opinion about Ameena Al-Tahaif's case, early marriage and women's inheritance. The following is a glimpse of her thoughts.

What are the legal rights of a female prisoner and are these rights carried out in reality?

A female prisoner has rights and duties guaranteed her by the constitution. She has many rights including appearing in person before the courts, getting food, medicine and jobs. If she desires to contact her family, she can receive letters. She is entitled to pursue her studies. Moreover, the female prisoner can sit with her lawyer, appearing in person before the prosecution but handcuffed. I think 80 percent of these rights are carried out in reality.

What are the procedures of arresting a suspect and are they executed according to the law?

The arrest procedures along with investigation of the accused woman are carried out after lodging a notification or complaint to the judicial arresting bodies. There must be a direct accusation [against] a particular girl or woman. In the case of lack of a certain accused girl or woman, they arrest multiple suspects. They also arrest those who have some relation to the crime or those who confess committing the crime.

However, the investigation process is [handled by] the detective. The detective has no right to inspect [a woman suspect], but inspection is done by a female. Unfortunately, there are some cases of hitting or intimidation which women are subjected to due to the lack of lawyers. This violation is usually found in the police stations as well as the criminal investigation bureau.

Of course, the constitution as well as the law prevent that such violations are registered or reported because the detective [is not held accountable according] to any legal article.

What are the conditions of the prisons, especially for women?

Most of my visits are paid to the central prison in Sana'a as well as Dar Al-Amal for girls (juveniles), Dar Al-Rahma for female orphans and Dar Al-Tawjeeh for boys. I have not been given the chance to visit other prisons outside Sana'a. The central prison in Sana'a is a good example for the time being due to its administration.

This opinion is based on field research I conducted years ago. I criticized the conditions of the prison along with inmates. Yet I was surprisingly moved by the improvement of the prison when I visited it four years ago. I respect the manager of the central prison because [of his treatment of] the inmates in particular and visitors in general. He also takes care of providing the necessary needs of the prisoners.

You offered judicial support to Ameena Al-Tahaif. What is her case and how did it finish?

Yes. I did offer judicial help to Ameena Al-Tahaif and many others. Ameena Al-Tahaif's case is that she descends from a poor family and could not enroll in school due to the miserable circumstances [in which her family] lives. Yet she could memorize some Qur'anic verses. Her father was obliged to marry her off when she was 11 because he wanted to get her elder brother married. [So] Ameena was married [according to] her father's desires. She did not reach marriage age as well as the [appropriate] level of bearing responsibility. Due to this early marriage, Ameena Al-Tahaif gave birth. She [delivered] a baby girl, Amani. After three months, her husband was killed at the hand of one of his relatives. The murderer carried out his crime assisted by his brother.

Ameena was a [witness] to the murder of her husband. So she was threatened with death if she would reveal the news. She could not tell her family about what happened to her husband because she feared [for her life] along with [that of] her little daughter. But she informed her family [about the details of] her husband's murder, [including that he was] drowned. The killed man and the killer were both of the same tribe. So the victim was Ameena. She was accused of killing her husband and was arrested by the prosecution.

[At the time of her arrest] she was a juvenile and suffered from mental disorder and hysteria. She was only 15. After her husband was murdered, she [gave birth to] her second child. She [went into] labor in prison. The baby girl was taken from her by force.

This is not a legal action. Procedures went this way. The court at first instance sentenced Ameena to death in 1999. The case was transferred to the appellate court.

What was the motivation behind your legal support for Ameena?

I supported and helped Ameena by chance. I met her in the prison. She sought my help. When I heard her [testimonies] and saw the [evidence] and how she was sentenced to death while she is innocent, I decided to fight and work hard to rescue her and stop the death-sentence issued against her.

International and local organizations announced that Ameena was subjected to rape in the prison and she escaped from the prison several times. Is this true?

Ameena escaped two times. The Yemeni authorities decided to transfer her from Al-Mahwait into Sana'a. Finally, she was put in the central prison in Sana'a. When the authorities decided to carry out the sentence, she was sent back to Al-Mahwait. She was dragged to the sentence square. She requested to implement the verdict on the true murderer but the blood relatives refused. Consequently, she told the judge that she is pregnant. Therefore, she was sent back to the central prison until she gave birth.

Was the pregnancy a result of the rape Ameena was subjected to inside the prison?

What I knew is that she was pregnant while she was in the prison. The pregnancy [delayed the execution of her sentence] according to Yemeni law, until the child reached two years old. The death sentence was suspended due to my efforts along with the help of international organizations for human rights headed by the International Amnesty Organization. In 2005, they urged Yemeni authorities to delay the sentence. It was postponed to make sure of her age. The international organizations spared no efforts to convince the blood relatives to take blood money. However, they refrained from taking it.

On what basis were the accusations and verdict issued against Ameena?

The murderer could escape. He [sought the assistance] of a shaykh, who was also an MP (member of parliament). Before he ran away, he threatened to kill Ameena along with her little daughter if she revealed [what she knew]. However, Ameena insisted on telling her husband's family. The murderer confessed that he committed murder, but [claimed Ameena was] his accomplice.

However, some newspapers announced the acquittal of Ameena, didn't they?

Ameena did not get her acquittal as Yemeni official newspapers released because of the film produced about her. She did not receive amnesty from the president due to the aforementioned film. The film was of large-scale interest for the media. Ameena, however, remained in prison. Her case had become propaganda for the government, [assisted by] the film and its producer.

During Ameena's case a lot of people heard about it via newspapers, but we did not read a press release or even a news article about you, her lawyer.

This is a good point. The deliberate sidelining is attributed to the criminal nature of the issues that I defend. Other issues have the human right aspect. Most of the newspapers are less interested in such issues, if the latter have no political [incentive].

[Geography] played a major role [as well] because I am from the former southern part of Yemen. Due to this reason I didn't receive the same care and attention like the women personalities in the northern part.

Is there a new law that will rescind the death sentence?

The new thing is that Ameena's second daughter, born in the prison, [suffered an accidental death] in 2003. By this incident Ameena is the blood relative of her daughter, the legal heir of her father. So, Ameena replaced her daughter in this case and the retribution became null and void.

Al-Mahwait preliminary prosecution presented an official request to the head of the Al-Mahwait first court demanding him to adapt the former verdict of the death penalty. The court demanded Ameena to appear in person where she was asked several questions which [were meant to establish] a direct relation with her daughter's death. Of course, Ameena denied [any] relation with the accidental death of her daughter, requesting to be freed.

Ameena's unfair prosecution was the driving force behind my supporting her. Her rights were not considered. This tragedy will be repeated in Yemen hundreds of times not only because of laws but also due to several other reasons. Ameena's case is a typical example of the violation of human rights. Her example is reflective of unquestioning judges and members of prosecution who violated Ameena's rights. [Her rights were first] transgressed when her father compelled her to get married at the age of 11. Yemen is still suffering from such a phenomenon, [legitimized] by Yemeni legislation within article 15 of the personal status law. Ameena is the victim of poverty, ignorance, early-marriage and finally absence of justice.

What do you expect from the preliminary court in terms of judgment?

I expect a blood money verdict because the imprisonment period is over.

Will she be able to pay blood money?

I was informed that the president directed the payment of blood money.

How do judges and the prosecution treat you as a volunteer offering legal help?

The general prosecution along with the judges accept my legal support. We always help them to find the truth.

You were the first Yemeni lawyer who lodged a lawsuit against cigarette companies?

First of all, I do not smoke and do not sit beside smokers either. I would like to [clarify] that my lawsuit against cigarette companies [began] in the United States in 1996. The companies promote their products and encourage smokers. I was very worried about this because they help increase the number of smokers in Yemen, particularly among women and children. Thus, I sued such companies and got three verdicts that support my demands.

How do you find the Yemeni laws toward women?

Yemeni laws are enacted according to Shari'a (Islamic Law). The parliament works to issue these laws. They are good and suitable but violated by those in charge of their implementation.

For instance, Islamically there is no law that deprives women from inheritance. [Yet] male family members such as fathers, brothers and uncles refuse to give up the woman's share. There is also a problem over the blood money of women. It must be equal to the men's share. A woman's loss cannot be compensated. The parliament must review some laws, including the law of women's inheritance as well as that of blood money. Civil society organizations must work together and have united efforts to change and correct laws violating women's rights, such as article 15 in the personal status law that encourages early marriage.

How do you evaluate the organizations working towards women's issues?

There are a small number of civil society organizations. They work hard and advocate for women's issues as well as issues related to political life.

It is said that the bar is a troublemaker. Is that true? What are the troubles you face?

The bar is a noble profession. It is, however, hard and time consuming. It may bring intimidations to the lawyer. I was threatened several times.

A lot of people complain about the prolonging of judicial proceedings. Why does this happen?

There are several reasons behind prolonging prosecution, [the greatest] of which is lack of judiciary independence. This is attributed to the incompetence as well as the lack of judges in comparison to the huge number of issues.

Source:Family and Development Magazine