Yemen imprisoning children despite ratifying child rights convention [Archives:2006/1009/Reportage]

December 21 2006

By: Mohammed Al-Jabri
Hamzah Al-Madhabi, 17, was detained for three days in a capital city police station when he was 15 for stealing some potatoes and spent a further 18 months at the Sana'a juvenile center.

“Because the owner of the potatoes refused to forgive me, I lost hope. Although I confessed to my crime, the police tortured me by hitting and lashing me. Due to such harsh torture, I even had to confess to crimes I never committed,” he said.

According to Al-Madhabi, conditions at the police jail were dismal. “They offered us no food and the bathroom was in the worst condition,” he recounted.

Al-Madhabi is just one example of hundreds of children who have been detained illegally in a police station or juvenile center, whether for a minor crime or no crime at all.

“We receive complaints from families that their children are detained and tortured in prisons,” said Ahmed Arman, executive secretary of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, known as HOOD.

Arman also raised the alarm about children who aren't kept in juvenile centers but rather in prisons, where they “are brought together with adult criminals.” He added that they are often abused and mistreated.

“These children complain of malnutrition. The meals they get are neither well-cooked nor nutritious,” he said, “The prison officials are soldiers, who aren't entitled to handle juveniles.”

Lawyer Jamal Al-Adimi blames Yemen's judiciary system for such action. “It's not allowed to imprison a juvenile for minor crimes, but police must do so to ensure that investigations can be conducted easily without having to search for suspect(s),” he explained.

The Yemeni government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. According to international standards, any child under age 18 suspected or accused of committing a crime and found to violate the law can be placed in a detention center. However, the age limit is lower in Yemen at 15.

Arman noted that there is gross injustice in many cases involving imprisoned children. He cited extreme cases where police allow parents to send a son to prison as punishment for being disobedient or for committing a minor crime like stealing food or money or fighting with other children. Girls are punished at home. According to Arman, such acts run counter to the law.

In most cases, detention doesn't exceed 24 hours. Judge Afrah Ba-Dowailan, head of the Sana'a Juvenile Court, noted that parents jailing their children is more a social phenomenon than a legal matter.

In some cases, even state officials can imprison children. Arman cited the example of Yahya Abu Saba'a, who since the age of 13 in 1997 has been detained at Sana'a Central Prison by Speaker of Parliament, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar. Abu Saba'a did nothing, but his brother was accused of murder and disappeared.

There are nine juvenile centers throughout Yemen, two of which are for girls, but the Sana'a juvenile center receives the largest number of children. “We've received 500 boys since the beginning of 2006,” center head Mujahid Al-Zindani noted.

The other centers in Aden, Hodeidah, Taiz, Hadramout, Ibb and Hajjah governorates house some 400 children, of whom 40 are girls. “However, precise data on the number of children detained by law enforcement agencies is unavailable,” said Naseem Ur-Rehman, head of information and communications for the United Nations Children's Fund in Yemen.

Such children, mostly under age 15, usually are accused of committing minor crimes, such as truancy, fighting with other children or using illegal substances like liquor.

Organized gangs sometimes exploit youngsters, particularly street children, and use them to smuggle goods, but very few are involved in violent crimes.

Prison conditions

According to Ur-Rehman, as in other developing countries, prison conditions are “dismal and harsh,” and most jails are crowded. “The worst thing is when children are kept with adults and forced to mix with criminals,” he added.

Even though the Yemeni government ratified the child rights convention, in reality, children who have violated the law are mistreated, often facing physical violence, lack of access to legal advice, basic food or entertainment in prison.

In an effort to reduce such practices, UNICEF is seeking to establish a system for juvenile justice in Yemen. In partnership with the government, it has recruited and trained juvenile lawyers to advise poor youngsters who get in trouble with the law. Ur-Rehman noted that 20 lawyers have been appointed to provide free legal advice in cases arising in the nine juvenile courts.

Additionally, UNICEF has assisted the ministries of interior, social affairs and justice, whereby 350 juvenile judges, police, social workers, law enforcement agencies and personnel working with children have been trained in getting “a better understanding of the rights of the child.”

Laws regarding child offenders

Ba-Dowailan stated that it's against the law to keep a child under age 12 in police custody, except as a “precautionary measure” when the child is at risk of being abused or has nowhere else to go. However, she pointed out that there have been cases when some children exceeded the 24-hour period due to behavior by some officers.