Mr. Najeeb Al-Shameeri: “The proportion of detained people with pending court cases is about 70% of prison inmates.” [Archives:1997/46/Law & Diplomacy]

November 17 1997

The Republic of Yemen is presently embarking on major reforms in the judicial system. The Prime Minister, Dr. Faraj Bin Ghanim, has his eyes set on over-hauling the system. One aspect of the reform in this sector is to increase the level of accountability among the judges and court staff. The organization entrusted with that job is the Judicial Inspection Board (JIB) at the Ministry of Justice. Mr. Najeeb Saeed Al-Shameeri is the chairman of the JIB. A native of Aden with extensive training and a long experience, Najeeb is qualified to do the job. But he says his hands are tied. Here is what he told M. Bin Sallam of Yemen Times.
Q: How do you assess the present condition of the judicial system in Yemen? A: The present condition of our judicial system is a disgrace to our country. You can find ample examples of corrupt judges, at all levels from the primary courts all the way to the Supreme Court. There is visible abuse of the system, due process of law is absent, archives and files are organized, and most of the deals are done in the dark and at homes of judges and their representatives. The justice system does not enjoy much respect. In short, the present condition of the judicial system is deplorable.
Q: Can you be more specific? A: Yes. Let me start with the Supreme Court (SC), the highest judicial body in the land. The SC does not seem to be functioning properly. It is supposed to be a school for judges, a reference and an example. But this, unfortunately, is not the case. Another point. The judges do not undergo any form of further training or post-qualification courses. The studying they do at the Judicial Institute does not qualify the judges in practical life. Continuous learning and training are vital for the smooth running of the Yemeni judicial system. There is no training of judges to keep up with developments, changes in the laws, and even in the conceptual approaches to issues. The third point is that once a judge starts working in court, he becomes completely isolated from any new development in the system. There are no contacts, no conferences or seminars, among Yemeni judges. There are no forums that bring together Yemeni judges from various regions in order to exchange experiences and views. Yemeni judges are not supplied with legal references, books, including the official bulletin in which new laws and amendments are published. This state of affairs does not exist in the lower courts only, but in some of the higher courts of appeal and SC. The relations between the various judicial and legal bodies, and the enforcement bodies have become unclear, and borders between their areas of jurisdiction are blurred.
Q: But isn’t that where you come in? A: In theory yes. But the JIB is not given the necessary resources to do its job properly. It is also not fully authorized to inspect the SC. According to the post-unification Law # 1 of 1991, judicial inspection must cover all the levels of the system. Let me tell you that our grand total budgetary allocation for 1997 is YR 2 million – some US$ 15,000 or around US$ 40 a day. How can I send out judges to travel and carry out inspections and collect information and document cases with $40 a day. By the way, I don’t have control even on this meager amount. Then there is the element of response from the judges. They feel they can ignore us, and get away with it. This is because the big judges are worried about us unearthing their work. So, they make our work with the little judges less productive. Finally, There is actually no board. The law was supposed to have established a full board with 24-40 judges of all levels. It did not happen.
Q: How immune is the Yemeni judicial system from politics? A: Independence of the judiciary means that a judge must be able to perform his duty without any external intervention, even by higher judicial authorities. The independence has to be administrative and financial. Independence of the judicial system, however, does not mean it is above the authority of the state. It is one of the authorities that govern the state. A judge, according to the Yemeni Constitution, has not only to be independent, but also act in the best manner to preserve the security and stability of the state. Most of the instances of violating the independence of a judge come from within the system itself.
Q: Could you tell us more about the Judicial Monitoring and Inspection body? A: There are generally two very important bodies in the judicial system – the Supreme Court and the Judicial Inspection. The Supreme Judicial Council can guarantee the independence and smooth functioning of the judicial system. It ensures that judges get their due promotions, travel allowances, just punishment, retirement pensions, etc. The present Supreme Judicial Council consists of 11 persons, including its head the President of the Republic. The 10 members include the head, his two deputies and 3 other members of the SC, the director of the Judicial Inspection, the General Prosecutor, and the Minister of Justice and his deputy. So most members of the Supreme Judicial Council are from the Supreme Court. It is extremely important to reform the SCs as a prelude to reforming the rest of the judicial system. Next comes the Judicial Inspection body. It is not an appeal or a rebuttal organ. It monitors the work of judges through surprise or regular inspections as well as investigating any complaints concerning the work of the various courts. Periodical inspection must be done at least once a year. Such an organ exists in all countries of the world. But, unfortunately, it has not been given the necessary resources to perform its full duties. The Judicial Inspection committee, which should include between 25 and 40 people from various backgrounds in the judicial system, has not been formed yet. It must be appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council. Not any judge can qualify for membership of the Judicial Inspection body. There must be special criteria for choosing our members. Also, this year’s budget is YR 2 million only, most of which was allocated for matters not related to judicial inspection.
Q: What are the special criteria required of an inspection judge? A: To qualify for inspection duties, a judge must be very competent and with a long experience in the judicial system. A judicial inspector must have the capacity to direct other judges to do their work in a correct manner. But before inspecting their work, all judges must be provided with copies of the enacted laws in Yemen. At least two copies must be supplied, one to be kept in court and the other for the judge to keep at home. Inspection should cover all court levels, from the primary to the appeal courts. It must also deal with issues of fee levying, implementation of court rulings, hearing the cases of jailed suspects on a regular basis, etc.
Q: How many judges are there in Yemen now, and how many does the country actually need? A: There about 1000 judges and assistant judges. With the appropriate reform of the judicial system, we should need less than this number – around 600 judges only. The Supreme Court, for instance, has 100 judges! In the US, on the other hand, there are only 9 judges at their supreme court. Choosing the best and most experienced 15, say, out of the 100 we have would greatly enhance the performance of the Supreme Court.
Q: Do you also inspect the work of the prosecutor offices? A: There is a special inspection body answerable to the Prosecutor-General which highly coordinates its activities with the Judicial Inspection body. However, I believe that there should be one inspection organ for both systems, to be headed by a member of the Supreme Judicial Council. This unification is expected to take place as part of the reform plan as it is not possible to separate the judicial system from the prosecutor offices. Prisons, for example represent an area of combined responsibility. The prosecutor office is responsible for implementing the law inside prisons and the judges are responsible for following up the cases of jailed suspects.
Q: Shouldn’t the suspects be kept in jails, not in prisons? A: Yes, prisons must house convicted people only. But due to the delay in case hearings, jails become overcrowded and defendants have to be kept in central prisons in various governorates. I estimate the proportion of people with pending cases to be 70% of prison inmates. There must be special detention centers for the accused who are waiting for their cases to be heard by court.
Q: Women, especially in the southern and eastern governorates used to play a bigger role in the judicial system. Why has this role diminished? A: Actually, this matter has been politically exploited during the rule of the former governing coalition. It was decided then that the number of women judges and employees at prosecutor offices should not be increased. This had nothing to do with the Islamic Sharia. It was purely a form of political maneuvering and an attempt to remove women not only form the judiciary, but also from other legal bodies. There is a move to admit more women into the Judicial Institute by the next academic year in 1998. There is also an intention to establish a court for juvenile delinquents in which women judges will play a major role.
Q: Could you elaborate more on the proposed judicial reform program? A: We are now in the process of unifying our plans. There are many ready proposals in the final stages of reviewing. There are also many decisions awaiting enactment. The draft law of judicial reform still needs some time. There are now intensive efforts to start the reform program within the existing law. Priority in the reform program will be given to purging the system of corruption. It may be difficult, at the beginning, to eliminate all the corrupt elements in the judicial system, but we have to see the process through. Judges who have reached the legal retirement age or those who are incompetent in carrying out their duties will be pensioned off.
Q: Do you have any last comment? A: I would like to advise all judges not to treat the citizen in a humiliating manner. People resort to the judiciary in order to protect their rights and interests. Judges must impartially treat both sides of a particular case. They must also adhere to the timetable allocated for individual cases so as to avoid unnecessary delays. Judges can participate in raising public awareness of the importance of the judicial system.