Muhammad Haza’a is one of some 180 people facing death in Yemeni prisons for crimes they allegedly committed when they were under 18.
He is due to be taken out of his crowded prison cell tomorrow morning and shot.
Those who supported our call last week to save him from execution appear to have bought him a precious extra week of life, but would have hoped that his case be reopened and dealt with justly, according to the law, not that he would be subjected to a cold-blooded killing.
We were shocked when we first received the phone call that Muhammad Haza’a was going to be executed within 24 hours.
Capital punishment is unfortunately common enough in Yemen, but the authorities would normally at least grant the prisoner a couple of days between formally telling them and ending their life.
Equally shocking was the fact that Muhammad had “proof” that he was under 18 at the time of his alleged crime.
We only had a few hours to do something. We had lists of alleged juvenile offenders on death row in Yemen, but Muhammad’s name was not on them. We knew nothing about him or his case. Yet we trusted our source and knew that the information he had provided us was highly likely to be correct.
Our source had himself been about to be executed a few years ago as a juvenile offender, when Amnesty International, with the help of other organizations, intervened; he felt that Amnesty International saved his life and regularly supports our work.
After we received the call, we urgently sent emails, made calls and issued appeals. At first we only received automated messages by email and were confronted with piped musical recordings by phone.
But one breakthrough here and another there soon created momentum. International and local organizations jumped in and phone calls to the Yemeni President and the General Prosecutor’s office brought the promise that the execution would be postponed and the case reviewed.
That was on Tuesday, 26 February. Less than a week later, the following Monday, two parallel events occurred.
In the city of Tai’zz, where Muhammad has been held, the head of the Appeal Court there filled in a form no longer than four lines and sent it to the prison authorities. It probably took him or his assistant less than a minute to fill in the blanks. The execution date is set for Saturday, 9 March 2013, it read. He added a line underneath: “We advise that security measures are taken on the above mentioned date of the execution.”
That last line was added in anticipation of protests. There were rumours that other death row inmates were planning to prevent the prison authorities from taking Muhammad to his execution.
Rumours were also emerging that a demonstration in front of the prison was being planned.
Local and international activists were making calls and noise about the unfairness and illegality of the sentence besides the inhumane nature of the execution itself. The head of the court apparently considered that all these calls warranted by way of response was a single sentence of warning at the bottom of an execution order.
In the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, meanwhile, the General Prosecutor signed a form ordering the prosecution in Ta’izz to refer Muhammad’s case to the relevant courts for review on the basis that there remained a dispute about his age at the time of the alleged offence.
Muhammad’s lawyer decided to personally take the form signed by the General Prosecutor to the relevant authorities in Ta’izz because he knew that if the document was faxed or sent by post, it would probably either arrive too late or mysteriously disappear.
It took him around four hours to drive the 260km south from Sana’a to Ta’izz. The lawyer was met, but the form was not accepted. Apparently the Ta’izz authorities were too unhappy with the attention Muhammad’s case had brought and so have simply refused to follow the laws of their own country and forward a case to the relevant courts when being ordered to do so by their superior.
It would surely be unconscionable for an execution to go ahead essentially because some officials had felt emboldened to flout instructions, but that seems to be the situation as things stand.
We continue to call on the Yemeni President, the General Prosecutor and the relevant authorities in Ta’izz to immediately suspend the execution of Muhammad Haza’a and to order a retrial that is fair and does not resort to the death penalty.