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Eternal Hostages:

Lengthy litigation processes violate the rights of Yemeni inmates

A lack of judges, handcuffs and vehicles hinders the process of litigation in Yemeni courts; leaving prisoners stranded, waiting for sentences to be decided, in violation of their rights. Meanwhile, the judiciary and the prison administration exchange accusations of responsibility.

Wael Sharha

11/03/2020

To no avail, but without relinquishment, Hassan Salem has been waiting 10 years to hear his name called through the loudspeakers installed in the corridors of Al-Hudaydah’s central prison. Salem became anxiously addicted to waiting by a small window, fenced with faded iron bars, for the list of people being referred to court.

This investigation shows how hundreds of Yemenis accused of various misdemeanours and crimes, share Salem’s fate because of the delayed legal procedures and the absence of legislation that sets deadlines for litigation periods and procedures. The judiciary and the prison administration exchange accusations of responsibility for the suffering of those who are waiting. According to the investigator who has interviewed various prisoners, some of whom have been incarcerated for 10 years in inhumane conditions pending decisions on their cases, the Ministry of Justice and its investigative and judicial bodies are unable to solve this chronic and nationwide problem.

Lost Years

In 2009, at 32 years old, Salem was imprisoned for a "breach of trust" of items consisting of a Yemeni dagger and cash, valued by the court at 3 million Yemeni rials ($5,000). A year later, the South Hudaydah court (226 km west of the capital) sentenced him to one year in prison, and returned the items to his brother.

Salem filed an appeal on June 20, 2010, through the prison’s prosecution body (which is part of wider Public Prosecution), who forwarded his case to the chief prosecutor. However, the latter did not take any action to this effect, which prompted the prison’s prosecution body to submit a second memo on May 4, 2013, followed by a third memo five years later on March 25, 2018.

Thus, Salem, who was unable to pay back the value of the property, has been in prison for 10 years pending the appeal of a one-year ruling, despite submitting three memos to overturn the court’s initial ruling.

Hassan Abdullah Salem

Pending Trial

Yemen’s 14 prisons (across 22 governorates) used to house 11,429 inmates, according to the last official statistics from 2016.

Of these, 2,075 detainees and prisoners are awaiting trial or an appeal, which is almost two of every 10 inmates. As of 1994, men constituted 96% of this number, according to the National Prisoners Association, which is a civil body established on July 8, 2013. The prisons also contain 4,311 detainees who are still under investigation by the prosecution, whose files have not yet been referred to the courts. That is, four out of ten inmates. There are 23 foreigners awaiting trial, including two women as well as 40 Yemeni minors and twelve women. Additionally, 29 prisoners were referred to the psychiatric clinic, according to the same statistic. Inmates are distributed across 14 central prisons and nine reserves (designated to house the accused during the investigation period) in 14 governorates (11 of which are under the jurisdiction of the Sana'a government).

The last announced statistic dates back to 2016, one year after the outbreak of the Yemeni war, which changed the systems of administration and control in most of the country’s provinces. No data could be obtained from the remaining eight governorates - which are under the control of the internationally-recognised government.

Prisoners

Until 2016
Total Prisoners
11,429
Central prison
14
Substitute prison
14
Psychiatric ward
29
Hodaidah Prison
1,400
Prisoners
350
Prisoners who are still under trial and divided into four wards with a capacity of no more than 300
On trial
2,075
1994
Men
12
Women
40
Under 18
2,356
Inmates issued court rulings
4,311
Prisoners still under investigation by the Public Prosecution Office

Ibrahim’s sorrows

My mother, my brother and my cousin died, and their funerals took place in our home. I also lost part of my sight and I am still behind bars waiting for the court to make a decision on my case

With this, Yahya Ibrahim, 65, explains his condition in the central prison in Al-Hudaydah. Ibrahim was arrested on May 23, 2015 with his two sons, Hazem, 19, and Hussein, 21, on charges of premeditated murder, according to official documents issued by the prison.

Initially, the father and his two sons spent a year in the Bayt Al-Faqih Directorate prison, located in Al- Hudaydah, before being transferred to the central prison for four years, leaving behind his wife and five daughters (the oldest of which is 14 years old and the youngest of which is 7 years old). In April 2019, the three defendants were sent back to the Bayt Al-Faqih to resume their court case.

Four years passed without the court holding one session due to the absence of a judge, according to the prison administration.

Fatini Yahya Ibrahim

Overcrowding

The deputy director of Al-Hudaydah’s central prison Major Abd al-Latif al-Sharafi, complains that the prison is overcrowded with 1,400 inmates, distributed among four wards with a combined capacity of no more than 300 people.

Based on aerial imagery from Google Earth, and with the assistance of a specialised engineer, it is evident that the total area of the wards is 960 square metres, which implies a maximum capacity of 370 beds, along with 1,000 square metres of corridors and a joint area in the shape of a mini-market for inmates.

Wasted Time

Next to Hassan Salem resides Abdo Al-Dabibi, who had to wait six years before four judges evaluated his file and sentenced him in 2019. The 37-year-old was summoned to court once every three months, before being informed that the session could not be held either because of the absence of the judge or a Public Prosecution representative.

The Criminal Procedure Law of 1994 stipulates that "the representative of the Public Prosecution must attend court hearings in all criminal cases (...) and the court must hear their statements and decide based on their requests."


Any judicial action in the absence of a representative of the Public Prosecution shall be null and void, according to the second paragraph of the same law. Musleh Al-Badji, Al-Dabibi’s lawyer, holds the prison administration primarily responsible for obstructing his client’s case by failing to transfer inmates to court.

The ARIJ investigator, during his third visit to Al- Hudaydah Central Prison on May 13, 2018, observed eight inmates in the building waiting to be transferred to the courts and prosecutors. Despite three hours passing, the investigator noticed that the inmates were still waiting for the escort and transport vehicles when he left.

Abdo Al-Dhabibi

Mutual Accusations

Deputy Director of Al-Hudaydah’s central prison Majed al-Sharafi holds prosecutors and courts responsible for the slow processing of cases. Al-Sharafi complains of a lack of equipment, mainly, transport vehicles, handcuffs and security escorts.

He explains that "only two of the four prison vehicles (with a capacity of 20 prisoners) are fit for operation, even though court orders require the transfers of 50 to 60 inmates per day.”

The detainees and prisoners visited by the investigator suffer from similar circumstances that have prevented them from going through the regular processes of their court cases.

According to Majed al-Sharafi, Hudaydah’s central and reserve prisons contain approximately 300 to 350 inmates who have been awaiting trial proceedings for periods of up to four years.

The investigator tried to interview the prosecutor of Al-Hudaydah prison, Judge Fuad Al-Maqtari, during the four days he spent in the prison yard, however, the judge was not around. Consequently, he resorted to contacting him repeatedly over the phone, but his attempts were unsuccessful.

The Prison Prosecution Responds

The former deputy director of the Central Prison, Judge Sarim El-Din Abdul-Wali, refuses to accuse the judiciary of delaying the court hearings. Instead he believes that the security authorities in prison departments are responsible for 90% of the delays while the prosecution is responsible for 10%.

"The absence of judges or members of the public prosecutors' office is due to the repeated failure to transport the accused," he added, describing the absence of the judges as "a rare event". Additionally, he denies the security services’ accusations that the prosecution does not follow up on the detainees' cases.

Judge Moufdal stresses that "the Prison Prosecution (affiliated with the Public Prosecution) is authorised and responsible for following up on the cases of prisoners who are awaiting trial." This office is also entrusted with "everything related to holding the sessions, such as scheduling". He confirms that this problem "is not recent, but has been present for years", reiterating the causes for the delays which are due to "the small number of courts and prosecutors compared to the number of cases."

However, Judge Moufdal shares Major Al-Sharafi's complaint about "the lack of vehicles and security forces required to transport the prisoners and detainees."

However, a senior source at the Judicial Inspection Board (who wishes to remain anonymous) accuses the prosecution of delaying the dismissal of prisoners' cases. This source estimates that the prosecution is responsible for 70-80% of the delays. This is based on "citizen and prisoner complaints received by the commission, while the rest of the complaints target the courts and security agencies."

The source did not specify the number of complaints or actions taken by the investigative body but clarified that it "directed the judges to quickly resolve prisoners’ cases.” He explains that the law dictates "a certain period for the settlement of cases, because each case has its implications and procedures".

On the repeated change of judges five years upon their appointment, the source acknowledges the effect of this on the progress of the dismissal of cases as “minor”. It also justifies the transfer by "the need of the Supreme Judicial Council for the judge in a more important place, or the incompatibility and efficiency of the judge in the place designated in it."

According to statistics from Sana’a’s Prison Prosecution, the prison receives between eight and 16 requests to transport inmates every day from the prosecution and the courts, where attorneys sometimes have to delay the transfer of inmates until the transport equipment is available.

Statistics from the Ministry of Justice in Sana'a indicate that there are 48 judges in Al-Hudaydah, distributed over 22 courts, at a rate of two judges for most of its courts.

Notes and Charges

The central prison administration in the capital's secretariat refused to make any statements except through a note from the Presidency of the Prison Authority in Sana’a, which referred the investigator’s request to the General Manager of the department.

However, the investigator, after six months of trying, obtained permission from the Prison Authority to interview four inmates at the central prison. Further, the prison administration refrained from disclosing the number of inmates who are under trial, and the periods they spent in prison or the charges assigned to them. This was done under the pretext that this information can be used as "dangerous intelligence” in light of the situation in Yemen.

Three of the four cases that the investigator was allowed to interview were prisoners with cases (initially) pending at the Bilad al-Rus and Bani Bahloul Court, located in Sana'a. This court was closed for five months in 2017 due to the absence of the judges.

Since Muhammad al-Humaida was imprisoned in Sana'a Central Prison on February 17, 2009, five judges of the Bilad al-Rus Court and Bani Bahlul Court were assigned to his case. After nine years, this man was sentenced to death after being convicted of murder. This began his journey to appeal his conviction, in which the prisoner no longer remembers how many times he was taken to court.

Ismail al-Haddi, 36, had completed 11 years in prison for murder by August 2019. During that period, his case was examined by four judges in the same court. In February 2019 he was issued a preliminary death sentence. Since then, he has been struggling to get his death sentence appealed.

According to official data issued by the Ministry of Justice, 32 judges work in Sana'a, operating in nine courts, each receiving between 20 and 30 cases per day (an average of 225 cases). This means that a single judge must examine 10 to 15 cases per day.

Two Courtrooms and a Judge

President of the Bilad al-Rus Court Bani Bahloul describes the institution as “two courtrooms in a building that is not prepared for the amount of activity and work required of a modern legal court”.

Bargashi adds, “there are courts that were established many years ago for one judge, but now more than 20 judges are working in them”.

Judge Al-Barghashi, appointed in November 2017, agrees with Judge Sarim El-Din on the reasons for the delay in the processing of cases. The two judges indicate that there is an insufficient amount of administrative staff at the courts; facilities are not qualified to handle the volume of cases; and that prosecution members are often absent. He explains that "the failure of the security agencies, represented by the investigators, to collect evidence at the time of the crime, and to monitor the evidence, affects the course of the case and prolongs the duration of the research and litigation”.

Judge Al-Barghashi justifies the delay in the processing of cases due to the high number and volume of cases compared to the number of staff available to process these cases: “our pending homicide cases amount to 86 cases as of October 2019, with only five judges and two courtrooms, which is not sufficient”.

Al-Barghashi also denies any absence of the judges: “the judge cannot be absent from holding the sessions, but the absence is instead from the public prosecutor.”

Al-Barghashi stresses that the transfer of judges from one court to another before five years of their appointment "affects the progress of the proceedings and their deliberation, as the new judge needs time to review the case file."

The law issued in 1991 and amended in 2013 regarding the judiciary, stipulates that "no judge may remain in one court without transfer for more than five years." In the same law, it is forbidden to transfer a judge from one court to another three years from their appointment.

While the judiciary and the prison administration exchange accusations of responsibility for the suffering of the prisoners and detainees, years of prisoner’s lives are lost pending the preparation of the courts and the provision of handcuffs and transport vehicles.

By the end of 2019, the accused, Hassan Salem, would have spent a quarter of his life in prison. Despite this, he is still holding on to the hope that he will hear his name called among the list of people finally being transferred to court for prosecution.