Reporters: Ahmed Al-Wase’ee and Aseel Sariah
Sixty years after Yemen signed onto the UN anti-slavery convention, and 44 years after its implementation, Yemen still has “masters and slaves.”
In a six-month investigation, two journalists found evidence of slavery in the country.
The Beginning Of The Story
The investigation started in the city of A’abs, 233 kilometers northwest of Sana’a, where reporters met Mohammed Kal’oom, the 50-year-old deputy director of the Department of Education. He got that job in 2002 and recalled that when the former director, Abdulrab Sa’el died, “Local figures in the district refused my appointment as his successor because I was still a slave.”
Mohammad says, “Slavery still exists and is deeply rooted in our society. We still suffer from it, especially from those with light skin, whether they are Sayyids (Descendants of Prophet Mohammed) or other Arabs, who look down on us and call us slaves.”
With him the journalists next went to the Aslam District of Hajjah Province, 140 kilometers north of Sana’a, close to the military operation zone on the border of Saudi Arabia. In one of the valleys of the Aslam District, they met Khalid, a descendant of slaves. “There are people in the region who are slaves of certain families or clans. They are still present in the Al-Thalouth area, about 20 kilometers away from my village,” he said.
On the way to Wadi Mawr, a district of Hodeidah Province west of Yemen, discrimination against the descendants of slaves became clear.
Houses of Clay
Khabti Sho’ee, 36, whom many consider a slave in the Wadi Mawr District of Hodeidah Province, said, “A slave is still a slave, and is treated as a slave. Segregation and racism still exist. Have you seen a slave become a sergeant, a mayor of a district, a doctor or a TV presenter?”
The custom and cultural practice are to deny rights such as owning land and building houses from stone, for those like Khabti. He says, “Our houses are built from clay, and we have no right to use rocks or stone as we do not own any land and are unemployed. Attempts to purchase land are denied by the light-skinned people, as God created us as slaves for other people. We are even ordered by the Sheikhs and masters on whom to vote for on Election Day.”
The marriage between descendants of slaves to Arabs or Sayyids is denied. Ibrahim Ashour 35, said, “My proposal for marriage was rejected by the Sheikhs and court officials for three years because she was from a higher class of society.” Ibrahim, however, did not lose hope and is now happily married with a son and daughter.
An Owned Slave
Close to the border of Saudi Arabia, the reporters met a 28-year-old slave owned by one of the Sheikhs who inherited his ancestor. The man agreed to a recorded interview, but disappeared after the Sheikh contacted him. The Sheikh refused permission for an interview with the man, but he suggested the reporters pay for the man’s freedom.
Back to Sana’a
Reporters briefed an official of the Commission on Human Rights, Sha’if Jarallah, at the Presidential Palace about their findings. He responded that “This is a violation of the law and the constitution Yemen signed. We hold the local authorities of the provinces of Hodeidah and Hajjah responsible.”
A Dead Revolution
The first president of Yemen, Abdullah al-Sallal, abolished slavery and liberating slaves after the revolution in 1962, however, his decree did not state any penalties for those who still owned slaves.
Article (248) of the Penal Code of 1994 states: (Punishable by imprisonment for not more than ten years are:
– Both parties that bought, sold or dedicated any act or conduct using a man as an object (slave).
– both parties that imported or exported man as an object (slave).
Journalist Ahmed Afif recalls that: “Before the Republican era, slaves could only be emancipated by decrees from the royal family of Hamid Adin and by legal documents. Now they can be liberated by republican decree.“
Nearly half a century after the revolution, a court in Hajjah Province northwest of Yemen ratified the legitimacy of a slave in 2010, shining a spotlight on the issue. After accusations and counter-accusations, the case was closed.
The case was considered politicized by official bodies aiming to stir up political differences in the country, according to the official at the Commission on Human Rights at the Presidency, Sha’if Jarallah.
Though Yemen has been party to international agreements since 1972, and despite the issuance of a presidential decree to abolish slavery in 1962, the Yemeni government did not act on all this. Yahya Saleh, president of the Yemeni anti-discrimination organization, said: “Yemen is party to the Convention on Human Rights, especially racial discrimination and slavery since 1972. Yemen signed an international convention that was ratified in 1972. But there has been no change as discrimination and slavery still exist.”
Saleh assured the journalists that buying and selling of slaves goes out.”Purchasing and selling slaves in an encapsulated way via sophisticated means still exists. A slave cannot be free and is stuck in a master-slave relationship unless the slave is freed. In front of people he is considered a worker but in reality, he is a slave”.
A Buried Case
In 2010, the Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights issued a report confirming it had monitored more than 50 cases of slavery in northwestern Yemen.
This report was followed by the revelation of a resounding scandal known as the “son of slave Qannaf” and the “female slave Sayyarah” whereby the president of the Ka’aidinah Court, northwest of Yemen, ratified a document on the sale and purchase of a slave.
This investigation was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) www.arij.net