(Sanaa) – Yemeni authorities should drop all charges against a member of the Baha’i faith detained since December 2013, apparently for his religious beliefs. Prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty for Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara in a court hearing scheduled for April 3, 2016.
Yemeni authorities should stop the persecution of the country’s Baha’i community, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Yemeni authorities have committed an injustice by prosecuting Haydara for his religious beliefs and compounding that injustice by seeking to execute him,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “The charges should be dropped and Haydara should be released.”
Haydara was detained on December 3, 2013, by officers from Yemen’s National Security Bureau (NSB), an intelligence agency. He was held in an NSB detention center in the capital, Sanaa, for almost a year, as officers beat him and subjected him to electric shocks and other mistreatment.
On January 8, 2015, the Specialized Criminal Court prosecutor issued an indictment claiming that Haydara was an Iranian citizen, using a false name, who arrived in Yemen only in 1991. Yet photocopies of his Yemini ID and passport provided by his wife show he was born in Yemen in 1964. The prosecutor also charged him with collaborating with Israel by working for the Universal House of Justice, the Baha’i supreme governing institution, which is based in Haifa, Israel. The prosecutor also alleged that Haydara lured potential Muslim converts to the Baha’i faith through charitable giving and tried to “establish a homeland for the followers of the Baha’i faith” in Yemen.
In the indictment, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the prosecutor charges Haydara under Yemen’s penal code with committing, among other crimes, “an act that violates the independence of the republic, its unity, or the integrity of its lands,” “working for a foreign state’s interests,” “insulting Islam,” and “apostasy.” The prosecutor is seeking “the maximum possible penalty,” which for some of these charges is death, as well as confiscation of his property.
Four members of the Baha’i community who have been monitoring the court proceedings told Human Rights Watch that since Haydara’s 2013 arrest, his case has had 13 court hearings, but he has only been allowed to attend three. The local human rights group Mwatana monitored the most recent hearing, on February 28, 2016, for which Haydara was absent. The director of Mwatana, Radhiya al-Mutawakil, who was at the session, said the judge asked the prosecutor, Rajeh Zayyed, about Haydara’s absence, but received no explanation.
Zayyed claims to have had 14 interrogation sessions with Haydara, but according to Haydara’s lawyer, Abdulkarim al-Hamadi, the prosecution only interrogated Haydara twice, and brought him to the prosecutor’s office twice more but then did not question him. Al-Hamadi has only been allowed to communicate with his client by phone.
At the February 28 hearing, Zayyed reiterated that the prosecution is seeking the death penalty. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel form of punishment.
Haydara’s wife, Elham Muhammad Hossain Zara’i, told Human Rights Watch that in a September 4 meeting with one of the judges presiding over the case, he threatened her with prison because of her faith and told her that all Baha’is should be in prison.
Since the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, took control of Sanaa and other areas of Yemen in September 2014, the judiciary has significantly slowed its processing of cases, though many employees within the judiciary system have remained the same.
Most of the charges against Haydara relate to his practice of the Baha’i faith. They violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Yemen ratified in 1987. Article 18 states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
Yemen’s penal code includes provisions that impose criminal penalties for renouncing Islam as well as attempting to convert Muslims to other faiths.
About 1,000 Baha’i members live in Yemen. The case against Haydara is not the first of its kind, representatives of the global Baha’i community said. In June 2008, National Security officers arrested Behrooz Rouhani, a Baha’i man, and two visiting Baha’i friends, all of whom carried Iranian passports, at Rouhani’s home in Sanaa. Rouhani told Human Rights Watch that the officers handcuffed and blindfolded them and then searched his home, confiscating many Baha’i books, video cassettes, and documents. They said they were kept handcuffed and blindfolded the first two days of their detention.
Officers arrested a fourth Baha’i man, who carried an Iraqi passport, the next day. Rouhani said that officers interrogated him about his faith the first week every night for five or six hours, accusing him of trying to convert Muslims and of collaboration with Israel. The four were released without charge after 120 days. The authorities told them to leave Yemen within two months, but this order was later revoked and two of them still live in Yemen.
A person who was at the trial told Human Rights Watch they heard the prosecutor, Zayyed, use derogatory language against the Baha’i community, saying that its members committed hostile acts toward Yemen.
Immediately after an earlier hearing in Haydara’s case, on March 8, 2015, Zayyed apprehended two members of the Baha’i community who had been monitoring the trial, Nadim al-Sakkaf and his brother, Nader Tawfiq al-Sakkaf, both told Human Rights Watch. They said that Zayyed tried to get the judge to issue a court order to formalize the arrest but he refused, so after checking their names off a list of members of the Baha’i community and holding them in the courthouse guard booth for two hours, he transferred them to the Political Security Organization’s headquarters. Security forces held them for two days, interrogating them several times about their faith and asking for names of other members, then released them without charge.
Local human rights activists have reported that past Yemeni governments also imposed unlawful restrictions on other religious minorities, including Christian, Jewish, and Ismaili individuals. Based on comments she said she heard from NSB officers, Zara’i fears authorities may deport Haydara to Iran. Punishing citizens with exile is a violation of fundamental rights under international law. Article 12 of the ICCPR states, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert committee that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has interpreted article 12 to mean that this includes exiling or banning citizens based on repressive domestic laws. The committee concluded that, “There are few, if any, circumstances in which deprivation of the right to enter one’s own country could be reasonable. A State party must not, by stripping a person of nationality or by expelling an individual to a third country, arbitrarily prevent this person from returning to his or her own country.”
Even if Haydara were found not to be a Yemeni citizen, under international law he still may not be deported to a country where he faces persecution or abuse. Because of his Baha’i faith, Haydara would probably face persecution in Iran, Human Rights Watch said.
Haifa, in present-day Israel, has been the Baha’i faith’s administrative headquarters since 1868, when the city was under Ottoman rule. The Iranian government, like the Yemeni authorities in Haydara’s case, routinely uses the connection to accuse Baha’is in Iran of spying for Israel, with which Iran has hostile relations. The Baha’i faith originated in Iran, but its members suffer severe persecution there, including arbitrary detention and prosecution related solely to their religious activities, restrictions on access to higher education, confiscation of property, and destruction and desecration of their cemeteries. Iran’s judiciary often charges and convicts Baha’is of unlawful links with foreign governments, including Israel. Seven leaders of the Iranian Baha’i community are serving prison sentences, ranging from seven to 20 years, on charges that include propaganda against the state and espionage on behalf of foreign governments.
“The prosecution of Hamed Kamal bin Haydara is symbolic of the broader attack on Yemen’s Baha’i community,” Stork said. “If the current authorities want to show the world that they represent an inclusive Yemen, they need to release him and anyone else being held for their opinions and beliefs.”