Despite Islamic Law, Yemen Bans Teen Death Penalty ; the Arab Nation, Often Criticized for Human Rights Violations, Takes A

Article excerpt

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. …