Concerns over the situation of the followers of the Baha’i faith in Yemen are growing. The minority is currently caught up in the middle of a conflict in one of the poorest Arab countries. A number of Baha’is have been accused of espionage and apostasy during trials held in Sanaʽa, the capital city of Yemen. Human rights activists have questioned the validity of the trials, describing the charges as baseless.
The Case of Hamed bin Haydara
Hamed bin Haydara is one of the members of the Baha’i community sentenced to death. Local and international rights groups, including Amnesty international, immediately criticized the death sentence as “cruel” and “degrading”, and called on Yemeni authorities to “immediately quash” the sentence. Hamed bin Haydara’s appeal hearing will be held on 30 April in Sanaʽaa.
The Baha’i International Community in a statement issued on Friday highlighted the deep concerns for the safety of all Baha’is in Yemen.
The court in Houthi-controlled Sanaʽaa had called for the confiscation of all assets owned by Baha’is and the dissolution of Baha’i institutions. The Baha’i International Community said that hundreds face persecution on the basis of their religion.
Earlier last week, the US Department of State raised concerns over “credible reports that the Houthis continue to severely mistreat, arbitrarily detain, and torture Baha’is in Yemen.” They highlighted the case of Hamed bin Haydara, who has been in prison since 2013 and was sentenced to death in January 2018.
“This persistent pattern of vilification, oppression, and mistreatment by the Houthis of Baha’is in Yemen must end.” Morgan Ortagus, a spokesperson for the United States Department of state said in a statement.
Mr. Haydara is not the only Baha’i in Yemen who has faced persecution and trial. In 2018, 24 Baha’is were accused of apostasy and spying for Israel.
“At the moment there are six Baha’is in prison. One prisoner, Mr. Haydara, received the death sentence in January 2018. This is really disturbing as the persecution is linked to his faith. Another five currently detained in prison are also potentially facing the death penalty. It is not only these Baha’is in prison who are facing pressure, but the whole community” Marga Martens, spokesperson of the Baha’i community in the Netherlands told Zamaneh.
When did the Baha’i Faith Start in Yemen?
The Baha’i community has been living in Yemen for more than a century and a half. The Baha’i faith originated in Iran in 1844 but it is banned there. The followers of the faith undergo systematic persecution by the Iranian state. Israel is currently home to some of the Baha’i holy sites and also some of the administrative buildings, due to the banishment of the founder of the Baha’i Faith by the Iranian government and the Ottoman Empire. There are an estimate of six million followers around the world.
The Forerunner of the Baha’i Faith, the Bab came to Yemen in the mid-nineteenth century and since then it Baha’is constitute a minority in this Muslim dominated country. It is estimated that there are currently a few thousand Baha’is living in Yemen.
Persecutions of Baha’is by Houthis
Despite more than a century of their existence in Yemen, there were few reports of systematic harassment of the faith’s followers until recently. In 2008, under the presidency of Abdullah Ali Saleh, six Baha’is were detained by the authorities.
The crisis in Yemen started in 2011 with street protests over poverty and corruption. Hamed bin Haydara was arrested in December 2013.
The current war started in 2015. In February of that year, the Houthis took control of Sanaʽaa and in November they formed a new government. Houthis are originally from northern Yemen and are Shia Muslims in a Sunni majority country.
After the Houthi came to power the crackdown on Baha’is intensified.
In August 2016 Houthi-Saleh authorities arrested 60 Baha’is including men, women and children in an educational conference in Yemen.
In January 2018 Mr.Haydara was sentenced to death and the judge at his trial called for the dissolution of all Baha’i assemblies in Yemen. Later in March, Abdu’l-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis, announced in a televised speech that the Baha’is are satanic infidels. Following this speech, similar comments were expressed by religious figures and some of the Houthi armed followers in Sanaʽa.
The Iranian Influence
It is not clear to what extent Iran has influenced the Houthis’ policies, but their close relationship with Iran and similarities between the pattern of systematic persecution of Baha’is in both countries has led many to believe that the Iranian authorities are directing the persecution efforts by the Houthis.
“If you look at what happened in Yemen over many decades there was no persecution of the Baha’is. Slowly we began to see similar methods of persecution, such as arbitrary arrests. As I am speaking approximately 20 people face arrest, they are on an arrest list” Marga Martens told Zamaneh.
Ms. Martens believes there is evidence to show that the Iranian authorities are directing efforts to persecute the Baha’is in Yemen. A past statement from a UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, supports this assertion. The statement, made in May 2017, highlighted the resemblance of persecution of the Baha’is in Yemen to that of the Baha’is in Iran.“The recent escalation in the persistent pattern of persecution of the Baha’i community in Sanaʽa’a mirrors the persecution suffered by the Baha’is living in Iran.” The Special Rapporteur said.
Pressure on Defense Attorneys
Recently Shirin Ebadi, lawyer, and the only Iranian Nobel peace prize winner, protested against the death sentence given to Mr. Haydara.
In a letter to the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Shirin Ebadi, called the death sentence against Yemeni Baha’i, Mr. Haydara a violation of the freedom of religion and thought.
“Hamed bin Haydara was sentenced to death on January 2, 2018, for “endangering the independence of the Republic of Yemen” by promoting the Baha’i Faith, as well as espionage. His attorneys, Tarad Al-Samawi and Safar Al-Samawi, filed an appeal. At this stage the prosecutor, in a motion presented to the court on April 2, without providing any evidence, in addition to repeating the preliminary charges, declared the attorneys to be apostates and devil worshipers for defending their Baha’i client.” Ebadi said in this letter.
“In Iran in 2008 I acted as the defense lawyer for seven Baha’is, and as a consequence I was accused of changing my religion. My law office was attacked and faced other problems.” Shirin Ebadi added.
Yemenis currently experiencing the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. Approximately20 million people (80% of the population) need humanitarian assistance. According to UN reports almost 10 million are just a step away from famine.
A small minority of Bahai’s in Yemen have lived in peace for more than a century but now have to deal with both the Yemen war and a level of unprecedented persecution.