Despair and hopelessness pervade in a Yemeni prison where scores of children are on hunger strike to protest at their conditions and about a fellow inmate's recent death sentence, activists have told Amnesty International.
Since Sunday, 77 alleged juvenile offenders have refused to eat their prison meals at the central prison in the capital Sana'a until the authorities comply with a list of demands made in a handwritten signed statement.
They launched the hunger strike in response to the sentencing to death of Nadim al-‘Azaazi on 26 January for a crime he is accused of committing when he was reportedly 15.
“Executing juvenile offenders is expressly prohibited in Yemen's Penal Code and international human rights law – the Yemeni authorities must live up to their obligations and overturn this death sentence immediately,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“The reports we've received from inside Sana'a Central Prison point to truly appalling conditions faced by juvenile offenders, and we urge the authorities to act immediately to ensure children are treated humanely and not kept behind bars for longer than their sentences.”
Some of the children held in Sana'a Central Prison have apparently finished serving their sentences but remain in detention due to their inability to pay court-imposed fines.
The hunger strikers' demands were delivered to the authorities in a handwritten, signed statement in Arabic which Amnesty International has seen.
Besides cancelling the death sentences for al-‘Azaazi and all juvenile offenders, the demands include making sure that children are tried in juvenile courts in swift proceedings.
In some cases, alleged juvenile offenders have been on trial for more than three years, and some have even been imprisoned for many years before being found not guilty in court.
The hunger strikers are also calling for the court-sanctioned adoption of a qualified professional medical examination committee that uses technological means to verify the age of alleged juvenile offenders.
They want the authorities to reconsider what they see as unfair or overly long sentences for less serious crimes, and to respect and recognize the role of lawyers and the children's right to be represented by a lawyer of their choosing.
They also objected to prison conditions such as inadequate space and a lack of windows and even beds in some cases. They asked for an immediate end to physically humiliating exercises or punishments imposed on them by the prison authorities.
Another apparent cause of the child prisoners' anger is corruption within the judicial system – including the alleged falsification of documents.
More than half the children who signed the statement – 42 out of 66 – have been unable to see their families while in prison because they come from areas of Yemen far from the capital. They are requesting relocation to finish their sentences in the relevant juvenile facilities closer to home.
“This cry for help shines a light on the Yemeni authorities' failure to respect the human rights of children kept behind bars, and it must serve as a call to action to ensure that due process is followed and prison conditions are improved for all juvenile offenders in the country,” said Luther.
International law disallows death sentences or life imprisonment without parole for people who were under 18 years of age at the time the alleged crime was committed.
Amnesty International is opposed to the death penalty in all cases without exception.