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Growing calls for closure of private prisons

A prison cell
(IRIN)

A lawyer for Hamdan Dersi says his client was tortured in a private prison in late 2006 by tribal leader Sheikh Shu’eb al-Fasheq, after a dispute over the construction of a fence. The sheikh allegedly has a private prison in his house in al-Hudeidah governorate, western Yemen.

The issue of private prisons in Yemen has only once before been raised in parliament - after more than 400 residents of Raash village in the southern Ibb province were displaced from their land in January 2007 by their local tribal leader, Sheikh Mohammed Mansour, who allegedly has four private prisons. “But parliament can’t do anything about the issue as some MPs have their own private prisons,” MP Shawqi al-Qadhi, a member of the parliamentary Rights and Freedoms Committee, told IRIN.

“This file [on private prisons] has not been discussed seriously. It was closed as it is regarded as too sensitive,” he said, adding that sheikhs - or tribal leaders - are a majority in parliament.

Since 75 percent of Yemen’s 21 million inhabitants live in rural areas, where tribes are headed by sheikhs, tribal leaders (or sheikhs) play a key role in society. There are about 6,200 sheikhs nationwide, according to Dar al-Salaam Organization for Combating Revenge and Violence, a local NGO.

Weak law enforcement

Ahmed Arman, a lawyer and executive secretary at the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms, an NGO commonly known as HOOD, said imprisoning people without a fair trial is against the law. “But in practice, this is not applied as private prisons are full of imprisoned citizens,” he added.

Private prisons continue to exist because of weaknesses in the state’s legal system and in the judiciary, Arman added.

''Courts and prosecutions, which are small in number, don’t perform their tasks properly, and so people turn to sheikhs to settle their problems in most cases.''

“Courts and prosecutions, which are small in number, don’t perform their tasks properly, and so people turn to sheikhs to settle their problems in most cases,” he said.

The chairman of Dar al-Salaam Organisation, Abdul-Rahman al-Marwani, said that in most cases a sheikh’s word holds more sway than that of the security authorities. “People defer to their sheikhs in solving their problems as they have no confidence in the state’s judiciary,” he said, adding that in the past 10 years some sheikhs have grown powerful thanks to their weapons and private prisons. “They behave illegally by levying tribute on locals and sending them to private prisons.”

Private cells in state prisons

According to al-Marwani, today’s sheikhs are worse than the old ones as they can do whatever they want, including intimidate villagers by locking them in prisons. Even more worrying is the fact that sheikhs can also have special cells in central prisons in which to detain their prisoners.

Parliamentarian al-Qadhi said some sheikhs have special cells in the Central Prison in Sana'a, which is illegal. “We are worried that this trend is still going on,” he added.

Parliamentary Speaker Sheikh Abdullah Hussein al-Ahmer and some other powerful sheikhs have private cells in the Central Prison, Arman said, citing the example of Hussein Abu Saba’a, who has been detained by Sheikh al-Ahmer since 1997 in a cell at the Central Prison, after his brother, who was accused of murder, ran away.

The exact number of private prisons in the country is not known. HOOD has launched a campaign to investigate private prisons and has reported some cases to the attorney-general and the Ministry of Interior. “Some prisons have been closed, but we are calling for the closure of all of them,” he said.

US report

The US State Department report on human rights in Yemen for 2006 said arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention without charge or, if charged, without a public preliminary judicial hearing within a reasonable time, were common practices in the country. The report, released in March this year, said “Unauthorized ‘private’ prisons in rural areas, often controlled by tribes, remained a problem. Tribal leaders misused the prison system by placing ‘problem’ tribesmen in ‘private’ jails, either to punish them for non-criminal actions or to protect them from retaliation.”

According to the report, people were detained in such prisons often for strictly personal or tribal reasons without trial or sentencing. “Although senior government officials did not sanction these prisons, there were credible reports of the existence of private prisons in government installations,” it added.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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