The first time Hafez Ibrahim faced a firing squad was in 2005. He was taken to a small yard in a Yemeni prison and brought before a row of officers with rifles in hand. He thought that moment would be his last.
Hafez had written a will. His only thought was of the trauma his mother would suffer when she heard the news of his execution.
But just before he was about to be shot, he was taken back to his cell, with no explanation.
“I was lost, I did not understand what was happening. I later learned that Amnesty International had called on the Yemeni President to stop my execution and the message was heard,” Hafez said.
A wedding party gone wrong
Hafez had been held in prison, accused of a murder he insists he didn’t commit.
He was on his way to a wedding in his home town of Ta'izz when a couple of men approached him and attempted to steal his rifle. A fight broke out and a gun went off. Hafez was only 16 years old.
The teenager went into hiding, fearing he would be punished for murder, but two months later he decided to give himself up to the authorities.
After a short trial, a judge uttered the words Hafez feared most: “Sentenced to death”.
Hafez was convinced he was a scapegoat. His conviction was based on testimonies from witnesses who were not present at the time, including several who later retracted their statements.
“The death sentence took me by surprise. I was sad because I hadn’t received any justice, not even a fair trial. There is no justice or mercy in Yemen: if someone is killed, another should lose their life, regardless of who he is and whether he is guilty or not,” he said.
Corridor of death
After the trial, the young man was taken back to Ta'izz Central Prison and put in a small cell with 40 other prisoners, most of them adults.
“I will never forget the day I arrived at the prison. I was very young and didn’t know what to expect. An inmate had been executed that day, it was very sad,” he said.
After his first execution was postponed, Hafez decided to fight the sentence and the case was returned to the Yemeni Supreme Court.
“I was optimistic because I genuinely believed that some legal mistakes occurred in the first trial,” he told Amnesty International.
But his hopes were soon dashed. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal and again sentenced him to death. The date of the execution was set for 8 August 2007.
The arbitrary way in which the sentence was handed down shocked Hafez, but didn’t reduce his determination to fight for his life.
In a desperate bid to escape execution, he managed to get hold of a mobile phone someone had smuggled into the prison. He contacted Lamri Chirouf, a former researcher at Amnesty International in London.
“They are about to execute us.” Hafez said. This sparked an international campaign to persuade the President to stop the execution for a second time.
“I was again prepared for my execution when the head of prison called me. All prisoners thought it was the last time they were going to see me alive. Once in his office, he looked at me and said: ‘Congratulations, your execution was stopped.’ I was sent back to my cell having escaped death once again,” he said.
Hafez was eventually released on 30 October 2007.
“Upon my release I refused to get into a car, I just wanted to enjoy the fresh air, I wanted to walk, breathe my freedom and feel the rain. As I took each step, feeling the earth beneath my feet, I looked down to make sure it was not the tiles of the prison floor. I couldn’t believe what was happening, I could barely speak.”
“When I arrived back at my village I felt goose bumps covering my body, I never imagined I would come back alive,” he said.
A new life
According to a new report by Amnesty International (add link), Yemen is one of only nine countries in the world which have consistently executed people in each of the past five years.
At least 13 inmates are known to have been executed and another three sentenced to death in 2013 alone.
Hafez says he will never forget about his days on death row, but affirms the terrifying experience hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dreams.
Now the 29 year old is a lawyer helping juveniles who languish on death row corridors across Yemen. He is also raising a 16-month-old daughter whom he named after an Amnesty International campaigner who worked on his case. He intends to study for a PhD after he finishes his Master’s this coming year.
“Justice was and still is sacred for me. Today, when I go into prisons, I still feel like I am one of the prisoners. I still feel their tragedy. I decided to study and make something of myself, to be able to help people in prison.”