Four years of incarceration of Baha'i faith adherents in Yemen’s Sanaa has ended up with exiling them. The Houthi authorities set six Baha'i members free on July 30, and they were immediately flown outside Yemen.
The six Baha'i individuals are named Hamed bin Haydara, Badiullah Sanai, Wael al-Arieghie, Waleed Ayyash, Akram Ayyash and Kayvan Ghaderi.
Haydara is the leader whom the Houthis sentenced to death last year for alleged links to Israel and apostasy. But Mahdi al-Mashat, head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, declared in March a pardon and ordered the release of the six detainees. The Houthis have been boasting about this pardon ever since.
Baha'ism dates back to the 19th century and it first emerged in Iran. The believers in this faith say their chief objective “is to contribute to the construction of a more peaceful and just global order.” The Baha'is are estimated at 5 million worldwide and they are dispersed in several countries, including Yemen. The Baha'i minority constitutes 1% of Yemen’s non-Muslim population.
While the Houthi release of the Baha'i members seems like a good deed, deporting them out of Yemen points to the oppressive atmosphere the country is undergoing. The war has not only starved people to death, but also has taken a heavy toll on their freedom of expression and faith. The recent exile of the Baha'i faith members is a stark example of the insecure freedom climate in this war-ravaged country.
In the eyes of the Houthis, freeing the Baha'is is a praiseworthy step and a noble act. Hussein al-Azzi, the Houthi deputy foreign minister, said July 30 that the release of the six Baha'is came in response to the directives of Mashat. He added, “We hope that this noble stance would be met with more commitment and respect for the law and with the observance of the general order of Yemeni society.”
The release has not been applauded by everyone. Nadwa al-Dawsari, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, does not see the release of the Baha'is as a step that should be commended. She tweeted, “I hope no one celebrates the 'release' of Baha’is. There is nothing to celebrate. They were exiled for simply having a faith that Houthis did not approve. Even their exile came after tremendous international pressure on Houthis.”
Presently, the Houthis are in control of the bulk of Yemen’s northern territories, and their decrees can go unopposed. The reaction of human rights activists and the UN-recognized Yemeni government can do nothing to stop the persecution of the Baha'is or other groups in the country.
Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani described the exile of adherents of this faith as a flagrant violation of international laws and conventions, and a crime against humanity. “What happened is as heinous as the crime of abducting them from their houses, holding them at detention centers for years, exposing them to the worst physical and psychological tortures, and appropriating their properties,” Eryani said.
Though the Baha'i International Community (BIC) appreciated the release of the six members, it remains “gravely concerned.”
Diane Alai, a BIC representative, said in a statement, “As Yemen’s search for durable, societal peace continues, Baha’is must be able — like all Yemenis — to practice their faith safely and freely, in keeping with the universal principles of freedom of religion or belief. This is not possible until the charges are lifted.”
Over the last five years, journalism and politics have been risky in Yemen, let alone practicing a different faith. The Houthis rose to power swiftly in 2014-15, and this would not have materialized without the resort to force and absolute domination of areas they rule.
A Sanaa-based human rights journalist told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the Baha'is cannot be safe and they cannot practice their faith freely as long as this war continues. “If they are in the south, they would be targeted by al-Qaeda operatives and they have been persecuted by the Houthi group in the north.”
He added, “The group has no tolerance toward ideologies that contradict theirs, and they have even modified the school curricula over the last few years. They make sure their ideologies permeate society to foster the spread of their influence. They have also renamed some public schools and university halls, and all this [has] been done to promote their thoughts.”
Political observers have criticized the deportation of the Baha'is calling it “inhumane.” Khalil al-Omary, the Belgium-based editor-in-chief of Rai Alyemen news site, told Al-Monitor that forcing these men into exile is a “fascist act.”
He noted, “The Houthis committed two crimes against the Baha'is. The first is incarceration and banning them from practicing their religious rites, and the second is exiling them from the country.”
What the Houthis have done to the Baha'is is not different from the way they have treated journalists and political opponents, according to Omary. “The Houthis sentenced journalists in Sanaa to death and their assaults on freedom of opinion and expression do not seem to cease as long they continue to dominate the population,” he added.
As the war in the country persists and goes on unabated and peace is nowhere in sight, freedom of thought and expression will continue to be a red line and the Baha'is’ ordeal will not be the last example of oppression in Yemen.