Walid Haykel has waged an 8-year fight against his looming execution [Archives:2008/1161/Reportage]

May 5 2008

By: Wojoud Mojalli
For The Yemen Times

Although Yemeni law prohibits executing children, a 23-year-old is set to be executed for a murder he allegedly committed when he was 15.

Walid Haykel, who was convicted of murdering 27-year-old Najeeb Al-Sa'awani, although he maintains that he is innocent, has been in prison for nearly eight years. When Haykel's sentence – the death penalty – originally was handed down, he was only 15 years old. Al-Sa'awani was found dead of knife wounds in Sana'a city in September 2000.

The murder case was considered a challenge for the police, who arrested and detained in jail more than 50 people during the investigation because, according to the police report, Al-Sa'awani had many enemies and was always in a fight.

A medical report derived from Al-Sa'awani's autopsy indicated that his death was at the hands of three to five individuals. Haykel, who was Al-Sa'awani's neighbor, became a suspect because the two had had a small fight just days before the murder.

Haykel was held in the criminal investigation jail for two months, during which he claims police tortured him until he confessed to the murder.

Haykel's first execution date was set for Nov. 20, 2006, but he and his father appealed the ruling in May 2007 on the grounds that his confession resulted from torture. However, the court refused his appeal and Haykel made his final appeal on Dec. 6, 2007.

The Supreme Court of Appeals refused to allow Haykel the Right of Innocence, instead ruling that Haykel should be executed, which was approved on April 9.

The youth may be executed at any moment because his sentence is ready and only awaits President Ali Abdullah Saleh's signature on his execution order. He awaits his destiny at the Central Prison.

Legal debate

Yemen's Criminal Law stipulates that anyone between ages 15 and 18 who commits a crime shall receive only half the adult punishment, and criminals younger than 18 are required to be jailed for three to 10 years instead of facing execution.

According to the same law, the death penalty can't be applied to anyone under age 18, while imprisoning such underage criminals shall be at special jails where the prisoner is to be treated in accordance with international human rights standards. If a criminal's age is unknown when he or she committed the crime, the judge must bring in an expert to determine the age of the accused.

Under the same law, the judge must consider all evidence of this type, including whether the criminal is mature or not, as well as evaluating his or her mental state.

In Haykel's medical report, which was conducted in 2001 at the request of the prosecuting attorney for northern Sana'a governorate, Haykel was said to have completed 15 but not 16 years. However, the court ruled that the medical report was too speculative and wouldn't be accepted as evidence in the case.

Many Yemenis don't know their exact age because they have no birth certificate nor any other registration documents.

However, there were no specific criminal laws concerning juveniles at the time of Haykel's arrest, said a source close to the court who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the material.

The source added that there was neither a juvenile court nor a juvenile prison eight years ago, which is why Haykel's medical report was not admitted into evidence during his original trial.

The source, who has credible experience with Yemen's legal system and juvenile offenders, said that the court must re-open his case and reconsider Haykel's age at the time of the crime before following out any sentencing measures (including his execution). The source said that Haykel's age – and not whether he actually committed the crime – is the crux of his trial's problems.

Confession under torture

Haykel's father Hussein says his son told him he'd rather be executed than continue enduring daily torture in jail, although he swears he didn't kill anyone. “Instead of being tortured and living in hell, I confessed and did whatever they wanted,” Haykel later testified in court while denying the charges against him.

“I confessed because I was being tortured at the jail,” said Haykel. “They also forced me to say that I was 18. I didn't know or understand what was going on, so that's why I confessed.”

After spending two months in the criminal investigation jail, Haykel was transferred to the juvenile prison facility in November 2000.

“There's no rule of law in Yemen. Although we brought in many witnesses, the court paid no attention,” Haykel's brother Saddam said, “I asked the judge the whereabouts of the gun and the knife my brother supposedly used, but he had no answer. Thus, there's no weapon [admitted] as evidence against my brother!

“On the night of the murder, Walid was sleeping next to me, so how can they say he killed Najeeb?” his brother continued. “Najeeb's family bribed the investigators to torture my brother,” he claims, adding, “My brother will be executed at any moment for doing nothing!”

Their father comments, “If my son really was the one who killed Najeeb, I'd let the law execute him, but there's no evidence against him, except that he confessed under torture while in jail.”

Several witnesses came to the court to testify to Haykel's innocence, but the court didn't accept their testimony because they were in jail with him.

Hani Ali Al-Khawlani, who shared Haykel's jail cell, told the court, “Walid was taken outside for two hours every day. When he came back, his hands and legs were swollen and his entire body showed signs that he been beaten severely. He cried very much while in jail.”

His cellmate continued, “One day, an officer came and started kicking him, saying, 'You killed Najeeb! You must confess now!' Walid was crying and saying, 'I didn't kill him, I swear!'”

“Every day, the investigators would take Walid and beat him [to the point] where he couldn't walk. After torturing [him] for one to two hours, he was place in a bedspread and returned to his cell,” recalled Ibrahim Abdulkarim Hajjar, who was a guard at the jail during Haykel's incarceration, and testified during Haykel's court testimony.

However, Abdullah Nasser and Abdulhakim Al-Riyami, who were attendees at the investigation, testified in court that they went to the criminal sector where Haykel said on record that he had killed Al-Sa'awani – and that no one had forced him confess, nor had anyone beaten him while he was in jail.

Appeal to stop death sentence

“Several witnesses testified that my son was tortured for nearly two months, but no one listened to them,” Haykel's father says. “I now request and plead to the president and all of the authorities to save my child from being executed.”

The Children's Parliament also has asked President Saleh to halt Haykel's execution because he was 15 at the time of the murder, so under Yemeni law, the death penalty can't be applied.

Haykel's death penalty order has been readied for President Saleh's signature twice before, but the decision was postponed after human rights organizations intervened and because Haykel's father requested an appeal.

As he points out, “We're a poor family with no money to bribe officials to help us with our case or even to hire a lawyer. All of the attorneys who have taken our case were volunteers.”