Yemen's death row houses not just adults but children... hear their stories and meet the youngsters determined to save them.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, April 9, 2013 - 21:32
Channel: 
SBS One

Fouad Hady reports from Yemen's death row; housing not just adults but children awaiting execution, sometimes for crimes they were forced to confess to.

Inside the prison, he hears their desperate stories and witnesses the battle unfolding as UNICEF staff race against time to save their lives.

But it could actually be other children who hold the key to justice and democracy in Yemen;

The country's Children's Parliament is now in its 12th year and has proved a formidable force in calling Yemen's leaders to account on issues such as child labour, early marriage and juvenile justice.

Its young politicians have already stopped three executions of underage prisoners, but they won't rest until all children are assured the rights they deserve.

WATCH - See Fouad's remarkable story, narrated by Victoria Strobl.

UPDATE (JUNE 2013) - The planned execution of all 27 young prisoners on death row in Yemen has been postponed, and a Presidential Decree has set up an independent committee to decide cases where the age of the prisoner is uncertain.

UNICEF has also now arranged to provide legal aid for Moaad and Nadim, but sadly the young prisoner whose death was averted following the dash to the minister's office in Fouad's report was hanged after officials determined he was over 18-years-old.

INTERVIEW - Dateline's Executive Producer Peter Charley talks to SBS World News Australia Radio, and explains more about the background to Fouad's story.

HOW TO HELP - Viewers who want to support the protest against child executions should contact UNICEF, plus follow the links on the right-hand side of the page for more about the Children's Parliament.

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Photo (flag): AAP

Interview


Dateline's Executive Producer Peter Charley talks to Greg Dyett from SBS World News Australia Radio, and explains more about the background to Fouad's story.

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Transcript

First tonight, a glimpse into a world rarely seen by the West. Dateline's - Fouad Hady has gained access to a prison in Yemen's capital, Sanaa where child criminals are being held on death row. His remarkable story follows a race to stop the executions led by a determined band of children. They are members of the Children's Parliament, a unique institution which has the power to hold adults to account. Fouad's report is narrated by Vicky Strobl.

REPORTER: Fouad Hady

Sanaa Central Prison is a grim, harsh jail. It houses some of Yemen's toughest prisoners with a special wing, reserved for the country's worst child criminals. More than 70 young men are being held here, some are facing execution. Few visitors ever come here, but today, the inmates are playing host to members of Yemen's Children's Parliament.

OFFICER (Translation): Everyone, this is the child sentenced to execution whom we have come to visit and support. He will introduce himself. Tell them your name.

NADIM AL-AZZAZI, CHILD PRISONER (Translation): Nadim Al-Azzazi.

OFFICER (Translation): Nadim, I can't hear you. Say again.

NADIM AL-AZZAZI (Translation): Nadim Al-Azzazi.

OFFICER (Translation): What is your case?

NADIM AL-AZZAZI (Translation): Premeditated murder.

In theory, nobody under the age of 18 can be executed in Yemen. But as we'll see, determining the age of these young prisoners can be difficult. Nadim has been found guilty of murder but was only 15 when the crime was committed. During the police interrogation, he says he was tortured.

REPORTER (Translation): They beat you?

NADIM AL-AZZAZI (Translation): Yes. They took my clothes off and left me in my shorts. They tied my hands together under my legs, inserted a metal bar in between and hanged me on two tyres. They kept beating me with an electric cable until 1.30 at night, while I hanged there. It was daily beatings.

REPORTER (Translation): You confessed.

NADIM AL-AZZAZI (Translation): Of course. Beatings in the morning, afternoon, evening;

The members of the Children's Parliament are a angry of what appears to be a miscarriage of justice. They are determined to do something about it.

MEMBER OF YEMEN'S CHILDREN'S PARLIAMENT (Translation): We will stand by Nadim and innocent children like him, we will follow this up for them until we achieve their demands, even if we have to camp outside the president's residence.

OFFICER (Translation): Applause everyone.

GIRL (Translation): In the name of God the merciful, opening the Children's Parliament first session. Parents, members of previous and present parliaments, guests.

Yemen's Children's Parliament, is a surprising institution in a country where democracy struggles. Its members are between the age of 13-15 years and are elected by their fellow students every two years. They elect their speaker in a formal meeting in the national parliament.

JAMAL AL CHAMI, PRINCIPAL (Translation): It is the sixth parliament now and the process is the same as that of the national parliament - all processes pursuant to Electoral Law and applied to the Children's Parliament.

Jamal al Chami is the principal of the Democracy School, it's a non-government organisation protecting children's rights in Yemen. The Democracy School organises the nationwide elections for the Children's Parliament.

REPORTER (Translation): Does the Children's Parliament have power over the government?

JAMAL AL CHAMI (Translation): Of course, it questions the government comprehensively. It is done by the children and I believe they are more honest than adults because they have no vested interests with ministers.

GIRL (Translation): This is the Children's Parliament in its fourth session under the motto of protecting children from child marriage, conscription and crime.

Meeting every three months, the Children's Parliament has the power to cross examine government ministers and officials, and they don't take no for an answer.

BOY (Translation): We don't want further delays, because what is the use of meeting after the conference? Or give us a phone number of someone we can talk to.

These child politicians are prepared to take on problems that the adults can't fix. They are concerned of child labour, early marriage, malnutrition and juvenile justice. And they expect to be heard.

GIRL (Translation): The session had positives on one side and negatives on the other. The negatives included a lack of cooperation of some government agencies in attending the session even though they were invited, more than once.

In Yemen, there is 40% of unemployment. Poverty drives families to send their children to work, sometimes in dangerous and exhausting jobs. As a member of the Children's Parliament, Hafaz Mayad wants laws to protect them.

HAFAZ MAYAD (Translation): We will hopefully propose a law banning child labour and for children who work to do simpler jobs that suit their ages to enable them to earn monthly wages.

Yemen's political upheavals have led to many children becoming refugees or being separated from their families. The lucky ones end up in a place like this. A privately financed orphanage in Sanaa - Abra Falah is one of 9 lucky ones.

ABRA FALAH (Translation): I was ten years old, thank God now I'm older and my mind is broader and the home took us in and provided us with everything. Thank God, I was elected to parliament and hopefully I can work harder and harder so I can bring the voice of children to parliament.

The Children's Parliament has criticised the lack of support in Yemen's government-run orphanages. Abra, wants the children to know that they can do something about it.

ABRA FALAH (Translation): Do you have suggestions or problems faced by children that you would like to take to parliament to find a solution? Someone speak;. Who has a suggestion?

GIRL (Translation): Regarding children, some parents deprive their children of school, they deny their children what they need to secure a future. This is the biggest issue.

Since its beginning, the Children's Parliament has made some significant reforms.

JAMAL AL CHAMI (Translation): The Democratic School finds that it has achieved many things in the past ten or twelve years, they include taking part in amending Children's Rights Law, lobbying the government on pieces of legislation, including Juvenile Age, staying the execution of two juveniles who had committed crimes when they were juveniles aged between 15 and 16.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF, UNICEF (Translation): So the text of the ruling changed to ten years instead of three? What was the reason? What was it? Who manipulated the text?

Following the visit to the prison, George Abu Al-Zulof from UNICEF is investigating their concerns. He is worried about the case of Moaad. A young prisoner on death row, found guilty of murder.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): How long have you been in jail?

MOAAD, PRISONER (Translation): I have been here a year.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): A year. None of your family visited you?

MOAAD (Translation): No.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): You always cry for them.

MOAAD (Translation): Always.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): Do you miss your mother?

MOAAD (Translation): I miss them a lot. I wish I could see them just for a moment, I try to call them on the phone but they hang up on me.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): They hang up?

MOAAD (Translation): I try to call them, but when they answer and know it's me they hang up.

OFFICER (Translation): How many cases are like Moaad? Moaad is one of thousands that happen in prisons. Moaad and others like him happened to be in Sanaa, but what about those in other prisons? Provinces with no juvenile prisons put children in adults' prisons. We need a radical solution to this issue, for everyone, not just for Moaad.

Moaad has been abandoned by his family. They fear that the relatives of the murdered man will take revenge on them. So they are prepared to allow Moaad to be executed, as a kind of sacrificial lamb.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): What was your case, can you tell me?

MOAAD (Translation): A murder charge.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): Did you do it?

MOAAD (Translation): No.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): Who was killed, your neighbour, your friend?

MOAAD (Translation): Someone from the neighbourhood. They said I killed him. How could I kill him? I can't even kill a chicken.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF: We have several cases like the case of the child Moaad. He is a highly vulnerable to receive death penalty by the court. His family disowned him. Moaad is accused of murder together with another three children. But now, because his family disowned him, because of the tribal values and culture, they are afraid from revenge if Moaad will not be executed.

In a country where many children don't have birth certificates, there's doubt of their actual age. If Moaad is under 18, he'll escape the death penalty. But four doctors have different versions of his age.

GEORGE ABU AL-ZULOF (Translation): Why do you think you were judged to be 15 or 16, according to three medical examiners, then they decided that you were an adult aged 18 years old?

MOAAD (Translation): Bribes, by the adversaries. Bribes. There is no one to follow up on things for me, there's nothing. They do as they please.

George, the UNICEF representatives, has discovered that a 15-year-old boy is facing execution that day in a country prison. The prison warden turns out to be a champion of his young prisoners. He heads out on a desperate dash to the minister's office.

REPORTER (Translation): What's happening?

OFFICER (Translation): They'll execute him.

REPORTER (Translation): Where are you going?

OFFICER (Translation): To ask the minister and his deputy to stay the execution.

When the warden arrives, there's good news.

REPORTER (Translation): Was the execution stayed?

MAN (Translation): Yes. It was stayed.

REPORTER (Translation): Oh God;

MAN (Translation): Yes, thank God.

OFFICER (Translation): Okay George, everything is fine, thank God. The deputy minister's secretary spoke with the minister in Aden and they communicated with the prisons and eventually informed the prison in Ibb to stay it until next Wednesday.

Later, the execution is postponed indefinitely.

OFFICER (Translation): Thank God. My happiness is actually indescribable because we are responsible for staying the execution, even if it was for a week. But I understand from George that there are instructions from the president to stop the execution and hopefully any juvenile, any minor below the legal age, will not be executed.

At the Children's Parliament, the news of the cancelled excuse is greeted with approval.

GIRL (Translation): I have a small announcement, we have received urgent news here at the Children's Parliament which is staying the execution of a child in Taez. I congratulate the Children's Parliament. Congratulations.

When these scenes were filmed at the prison, Nadim was just three days from execution. His sentence was postponed. But according to UNICEF, there are more than 20 children like Nadim and Moaad on death row.

MAN (Translation): Be patient and trust in God, God will make it easier for you. Be patient.

MOAAD (Translation): God willing.

MAN (Translation): We are all with you. If your family abandoned you, we are your family. Stop crying brother.

Already, the Children's Parliament has stopped three executions of underage prisoners in Yemen's jails. Moaad, is hoping that he might be the next one to be saved.

ANJALI RAO: What an absolutely heart-breaking image, that poor lonely boy in his cell. We understand that as of tonight, Moaad's execution has not yet taken place but there is disturbing news of the prisoner whose death penalty was postponed after that rush to the minister's office. We've heard that that child has been hanged after officials determined that he was over 18 years old. Let's just hope that the Children's Parliament can save others from the same fate.


Reporter/Camera
FOUAD HADY

Narrator
VICTORIA STROBL

Producer
ALLAN HOGAN

Fixer
FARES ANAM

Editor
SUSAN BELL
DAVID POTTS

Translations/Subtitling
DALIA MATAR
JOSEPH ABDO

SUHEIL DAMOUNY

Original Music Composed by
VICKI HANSEN

9th April 2013