Despite Islamic law, Yemen bans teen death penalty

The Arab nation, often criticized for human rights violations, takes a

Yemen often feels like America's Old West: There's a frontier mentality and weapons are close at hand.

As a byproduct of past civil wars and age-old smuggling, there are three firearms for every person. And elegant curved daggers, jambiyas, are as common here as neckties in Western cities.

And like America's Old West, traditional justice is often swift and final.

But the comparison falls short when it comes to capital punishment of children. While many US states still uphold the death penalty - even for juvenile offenders under age 18 - Yemen outlawed the practice six years ago.

In fact, the US is one of just five nations - Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia - that continues to execute those who commit crimes as teens. Three such American convicts were killed in January. Those deaths bring to 13 the number of juvenile offenders executed in the US in the past decade, more than all other countries combined, according to the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. Even China, the world leader in judicial deaths, has stopped the practice.

Amnesty International noted in January that Yemen's decision was in line with increasing global consensus

But Yemen's case tells much about how one nation - despite a checkered human rights record and traditional Islamic and tribal laws that consider children as adults earlier than age 18 - came to decide that, even for the worst crimes, teens should never pay a penalty of death.

"We struggled hard to change the age of responsibility to 18," says Mohamed Ali al-Badri, the vice president of Yemen's supreme court who was attorney general for 17 years and oversaw the legal changes.

"We argued that you must differentiate between sexual and mental maturity, because they don't develop at the same time, Mr. al-Badri says. "By law you must be 18 to take your inheritance or sell a house, so how can juveniles be executed for a crime before they are mature enough to consider their deeds?"

The decision wins praise from human rights groups - such as Amnesty International. But the legal decision - made when Yemen first approved its Islamic-law-based legal code in 1994 - sits uneasily in this society. There's still an urban-rural divide, and an official-unofficial gap in meting out punishments.

Not every juvenile case makes it into Yemen's weak judicial system, and not every judge supports the code. After all, sharia, or Islamic law considers being "of age" to be the point of puberty, usually 15.

In Yemen, an unofficial, parallel system of tribal justice operates based on revenge, blood money, and the arbitration of local sheikhs who often know little about statutory law - and therefore don't recognize the ban on death sentences for those under 18.

"There is a clash between interpreting the penal code and Islamic law," says Jamal Adimi, an American-educated lawyer who edits Yemen's only law journal and heads the Forum for Civil Society. "The fact is that the government can't put a court everywhere."

Yemeni law lists 13 crimes that can be punished by death, including some cases of adultery, for which violators can be crucified. Thieves can, in theory, have their hands amputated, though in Yemen - unlike Saudi Arabia - they almost never are because while the penal code spells out such strict Islamic sentences as a deterrent, in practice the burden of Islamic proof is so difficult to attain that most cases result in jail time or - for murder - execution.

Lawyers here say that many conservative sheikhs and judges don't agree with exempting child offenders from the death penalty, and some people have sought to corrupt the process. In one recent case, a boy whose pre-crime school certificate showed that he was 13 years old was tried as an adult, because the family of the murder victim mysteriously acquired an official forensic report saying he was, in fact, 19.

Still, such tales underscore a recognition that the dividing line between juvenile and adult, at 18, is taken seriously in the courtroom. Yemen's legal path has been disrupted by a string of civil wars and made more difficult by abiding fundamentalist Islamic thinking in some quarters.

A controversial draft of the penal code was put forward in the 1970s, and a juvenile code was laid down in 1992. Both followed the Islamic law custom of drawing the line at 15 years of age. In 1994 the Islamic Sharia Codification Committee drew the line at 18.

But the battle has not yet been won by liberal judges here. The difference between Yemen and the US is huge, says Tammam Mohamed Bashraheel, the managing editor of Yemen's largest-selling independent newspaper, Al-Ayyam.

"The US has a legal system with a broad reach, but here there is another system of revenge [among tribes] that the government is not able to stop," says Mr. Bashraheel, at his office in Aden. "Those in the city follow the legal system, but not [those] in the countryside."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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