Yemeni Female Prisoners ... Victims or Criminals?

Yemeni Female Prisoners ... Victims or Criminals?

Yasser Al-Maliki
Lawyer and human rights defender

One morning in the summer of last year, I was on a field visit to a preventive detention center in Taiz governorate (the Central Prison) with a number of young men. We went into the department of female prisoners. We sensed the oppression and pain over the place, prisoners crammed into separate cells from each other. There was no large open space for them to breathe fresh air and sit under the sun. When darkness falls, the female prisoners were obliged to sleep in their prison cell without light. Bathrooms are completely separate from the place, i.e., at night, the female prisoners are not allowed to go to the bathroom, because it is not inside or adjacent to their department and so it required female guards to wake up and accompanied them, which is an act of disturbance to the guards. Therefore, female prisoners must remain silent at night where there is no light or bathrooms.

While my colleagues and I observing this tragedy, I remembered what I had read earlier about prisons, where the services are like five stars. Among them is one of the most luxurious prisons in the world, the Prison Center of Justice in Leoben in Austria, where all persons deprived of their freedom are treated with humanity and respect that preserve the inherent dignity of the human being. There, each prisoner is given one cell with a private bathroom, a kitchenette and a TV set, in addition to the service available to all from a fully equipped gymnasium, and outdoor entertainment areas. I said to myself, “Where are we from this world given that women prisoners live in darkness and are not allowed to use the bathroom at night!”
I and my colleagues decided to set up an initiative to do something to improve the conditions of these women prisoners. We met with the prison administration, we suggested that a part of the wall be opened to the hall closest to the detention facility where women are being held. Our suggestion was welcomed by the administration. Then, we contacted local donors who provide the funding, and we started the work. We renovated the hall near the place of detention of women after opening a passage from their cells to the hall. So, the prisoners began to meet in this hall after they were living apart from each other. We provided electricity by setting up solar system, and so we lit the women's detention rooms. With the first bulb lighting up, we felt joy in the faces of the women prisoners. However, the problem of the toilet remained that unfortunately, we did not succeed in solving it, even we hoped we did. After that, we left the prison, and we hoped that the women prisoners would have a toilet attached to their prison so that they feel satisfied and with a little dignity that was wasted in the depths of the prison. However, have the authorities solved the prisoners' toilet problem, I doubt that!
This is not the only problem facing women prisoners in Taiz. Rather, it is certainly one of many issues facing all female prisoners in Yemen, given that Yemen's prisons lack many of the requirements that are considered the genuine right of prisoners, and specifically women prisoners, as they are among the groups that need special care and more attention inside Prisons.
The Yemeni Prisons Law stipulates many of the rights that must be provided to female prisoners, both in terms of setting up the place in all its aspects and facilities, providing food supported with nutritional value, finding integrated health care instead of the provision of health care for pregnant and lactating women and their children only, providing education for illiterate women, finding places for entertainment and education, providing psychological support, communicating with the outside world, allowing their families and lawyers to visit them, and many of the duties enacted by Yemeni law. Rights that are not stipulated in the Yemeni law are recognized by the international charters and treaties, most notably the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules), the most prominent of which was the necessity to deal with detainees with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human being.

I believe that human dignity is a feeling of satisfaction and lack of injustice, and in between this feeling and its opposite a mood that stems from within the human being of comfort. However, from my legal experience as a lawyer, I am certain that the feeling of human dignity has become stolen from Yemeni women prisoners. It is true that society looks at the woman prisoner as a criminal, but the brutal and unaware of the authoritarian behavior has entrenched this conviction among many people. Therefore, what the prisoners suffer the most is the wound of human dignity in them. Many of the stories that we have witnessed are of female prisoners who refuse to return to their families after the expiration of the sentence because their families do not want them to return, nor to see them. The social disgrace that people comprehend is attached to women prisoners because of the imprisonment of a woman does not disappear except by killing her if she returns from prison, so imprisoned women prefer not to return to their families and stay in prison, or to move to the women's shelters that existed before this conflict in Yemen.
What everyone should realize is that these women prisoners are mainly victims of the oppression and power of society and the corruption that we live in in all its forms. It goes without saying that prisons are not set up for punishment only, but for rehabilitation, education and training. While many prisons in the world have become reform centers, they are still the centers of punishment in Yemen only. On top of that, there is another punishment for women prisoners inside these prisons. Women prisoners are deprived of many means of health, rehabilitation, and access to the basic needs that keep them alive as a human being such as valuable food, drinking water, private toilets, sanitary facilities. As for the means of entertainment and the provision of means of communication with the outside world and means of knowledge, these rights seem out of reach in light of such a crisis situation.
It is true that the deprivation of the human dignity of female prisoners and their failure to obtain their rights in detention centers was before this conflict in Yemen is considered limited compared to what prisoners live during the armed conflict, for besides many of the rights that are not available to them in detention centers, the parties to the conflict do not hesitate to target female prisoners. With weapons, last year, six prisoners were killed and nearly ten others were injured in a reserve prison in Taiz, as a result of a shell that hit their place of detention in the prison. This crime reveals the extent of the ugliness with which female prisoners are treated in Yemen....
It is true that the deprivation of the human dignity of female prisoners and their failure to obtain their rights in detention centers was before this conflict in Yemen is considered limited compared to what women prisoners live during the armed conflict. In addition to many of the rights that are not granted to them in detention centers, the parties to the conflict do not hesitate to target female prisoners with weapons. Last year, six prisoners were killed and nearly ten others were injured in a preservative prison in Taiz, as a result of a shell that hit their detention facility in the prison. This crime reveals the extent of the ugliness with which female prisoners are treated in Yemen.
The authorities in Yemen, whether governmental or de facto authorities in Sana'a and Aden, do not grant women prisoners many of the rights they enjoy. This is a conclusion that many prison-goers, especially legal ones, realize. It is enough that women prisoners feel a major impairment in their human dignity, not just by their communities, rather from their surroundings inside prisons, the staff that run these prisons think of women prisoners as criminals deserve punishment, not as victims who must be rehabilitated and disciplined to return to society without psychological complications or social barriers.
The duty today is to feel the responsibility towards women prisoners, and to work towards achieving their rights, starting with the rehabilitation of the staff running prisons, then enhancing law enforcement and judiciary institutions that view woman prisoner as a sin that cannot be washed away by punishment, and ending with the women prisoners who are overcrowded in prisons and deprived of many of their rights. The inhuman treatment women prisoners usually receive indicate that violent and indignant women will be brought out into society, and they will do everything to avenge their broken souls.