Intel: Houthis continue to detain Baha’i prisoners despite promise to release them

al-monitor Members of the Baha'i faith demonstrate outside a state security court during a hearing in the case of a fellow Baha'i man charged with seeking to establish a base for the community in Yemen, in the country's capital, Sanaa, April 3, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

May 21, 2020

The political head of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Mehdi al-Mashat, vowed to release six Baha’i prisoners during a lengthy televised address in March. Two months later, multiple sources have confirmed to Al-Monitor that the Yemeni rebels have failed to follow through and that all six prisoners remain behind bars.

In a statement to Al-Monitor, Ambassador Sam Brownback, President Donald Trump’s envoy for international religious freedom, said, "We urge the Houthis in Yemen to do the right and merciful thing and follow through on their March announcement to release Hamed bin Haydara and the other arbitrarily detained Bahais in their custody." 

Haydara had received a death sentence that Mashat overturned in March.

“We’ve been concerned generally about the well-being of all prisoners, but in particular religious prisoners of conscience who aren’t violent, don’t pose a threat to security and are in crowded prison conditions where they are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Scott Weiner, a policy analyst at the congressionally mandated United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Why it matters: It remains unclear why the Houthis have failed to make good on their pledge to release the Baha’i prisoners. But the US commission and the Baha’i community speculate that Houthi leaders remain divided on their release.   

Anthony Vance, the director for the Office of Public Affairs for the Baha’is of the United States, told Al-Monitor, “It’s also possible that because the persecution of the Baha’is in Yemen — and the kinds of accusations — are similar to the kinds of accusations made against the Baha’is in Iran, one might think that since the Iranians are strong supporters of the Houthis, that Iranian influence in Yemen is part of the reason why the Baha’is were arrested and not released.”

Iran released some 20 Baha’is last month as part of a furlough to depopulate its overcrowded prison system in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, but some 50 to 100 Baha’is still remain in Iranian jail. Iran has a long history of harsh discrimination against the Baha’i faith, a minority religion that originated in 19th-century Persia.

What’s next: Weiner noted that UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has advocated for the prisoners’ release as part of his reconciliation efforts between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.

Know more: Naseh Shakir details efforts to get the Houthis to release their Baha’i prisoners.

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