“Systematic and silent extermination”: interview with Hamed Kamal bin Haydara on the persecution of Baha’is in Yemen

“Systematic and silent extermination”: interview with Hamed Kamal bin Haydara on the persecution of Baha’is in Yemen

Christopher Alexander | 6 October 2021

In December 2013, Baha’i man Hamed Kamal bin Haydara was arrested by Yemen's National Security Bureau and detained incommunicado for nine months. Prior to being charged, Hamed was subjected to an array of rights abuses: he was physically and psychologically tortured, denied access to a lawyer for the majority of interrogations, and refused medical care for various pre-existing health conditions.

After 13 months of arbitrary detention, Hamed was formally indicted in January 2015 on various trumped-up charges relating to his faith, including propagating and proselytising the Baha’i faith and being a spy for Israel. Under Yemeni law, such accusations may be punishable under an array of offences such as apostasy, espionage, spying, and treason—all of which carry the death penalty.

Over the course of 2014-15, Houthi insurgents assumed de facto governance of Yemen after ousting the internationally recognised government. Hamed became a prisoner of the Houthi authorities, and remained incarcerated for a further three years until the Houthi-controlled Specialised Criminal Court in Sana’a sentenced him to death in January 2018.

Proponents of Zaidi Shi’a Islam, the Houthi authorities administer ‘a strict religious regimen’, marked by a ‘trend of religious intolerance which restricts the religious freedom of non-Zaidi Yemenis from across a variety of religious affiliations and identities’. While many of Yemen’s religious minorities (including Christians, Hindus, and Jews)—and indeed the religious majority (Sunni Muslims)—have been persecuted at the hands of the Houthis, the marginalisation, discrimination, and egregious rights violations to which Yemeni Baha’is have been subjected is unparalleled. In March 2018, Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi movement in Yemen, gave a speech in which he labelled the Baha’i community ‘satanic’ and claimed that its members were ‘waging a war of doctrine’ against Islam. He then called upon Yemenis to defend their country against religious minorities, declaring that ‘those who destroy the faith in people are no less evil and dangerous than those who kill people with their bombs’.

The Houthi authorities have been accused of wielding the death penalty as a weapon to deliberately stifle the rights of religious minorities and perceived dissidents (such as journalists, human rights defenders, and political opponents) to freedom of religion and expression. Hamed's trial is a case in point, and has been described by Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director for Amnesty International, as follows:

[Haydara] is a prisoner of conscience who has been tried on account of his conscientiously held beliefs and peaceful activities as a member of the Baha’i community. This sentence is the result of a fundamentally flawed process, including trumped up charges, an unfair trial and credible allegations that Hamed Haydara was tortured and ill-treated in custody. It is also part of a wider crackdown on critics, journalists, human rights defenders and members of the Baha’i community.

In March 2020, the Court of Appeals affirmed Hamed's death sentence; however, he was pardoned just three days later, and released in July 2020 alongside five other Baha’i detainees. These other detainees were part of a group of 23 Baha’is, including 8 women and a child, arrested in 2018 on charges of apostasy and espionage. Those who were released in July 2020 were subjected to court-mandated deportation; however, upon leaving Yemen, the Specialised Criminal Court branded them as ‘fugitives’ and barred them from returning to the country.

Despite the 2020 release of Baha’i prisoners, the persecution of Yemeni Baha’is has continued. In February 2021, 19 Baha’is were summoned before a Houthi court in what has been termed a ‘judicial farce’. Ahmed Shaheed, the incumbent UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, has condemned this ongoing pattern of persecution, terming such misuse of criminal justice processes ‘an act of intimidation pressuring the Yemeni Baha’is to recant their faith’. The UN Human Rights Council Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen concluded that:

There are… reasonable grounds to believe that the right to freedom of religion or belief has been violated in Yemen. The de facto authorities continued to persecute Baha’is on the basis of their belief, including by detaining and charging them with apostasy, openly deriding and demonizing the Baha’i faith in legal filings, issuing death sentences, and threatening their supporters.

Violence against Baha’is has also occurred extrajudicially, by way of enforced disappearances. Indeed, a 2021 report by Amnesty International reveals the sheer extent of State-perpetrated rights violations as against the Yemeni Baha’is: incommunicado detention and enforced disappearances; prolonged pre-trial detention and denial of access to legal counsel; torture during interrogations; cruel and inhuman conditions of detention; lack of access to medical care while incarcerated; unfair trials; and forcible exile and displacement.

In May and September 2021, Hamed spoke to me* about his story, the situation of Baha’is in Yemen, and his hopes for the future:

Since the Houthis seized power in Sana’a, the persecution of Baha’is has increased systematically. They initiated my trial because they knew I am a Baha’i. The purpose of the trial was simple: to exterminate the Baha’is on the basis of fabricated charges.

Like all imprisoned Baha’is and prisoners of conscience, I was subjected to various forms of physical and psychological torture, humiliation, ill-treatment, and deprivation of legal rights. I suffer until today from the consequences and effects of torture—a broken leg and spine, and loss of the ability to hear due to the severity of torture, electric shocks, beatings, suspension, and solitary confinement.

What the Baha’is are being subjected to today is systematic and silent extermination—the crime of religious purification. [The Houthis] hide Baha’i voices and faces from the society, and incite the [Yemeni] community against us by spreading lies and political, cultural, and moral accusations against them.

We must protect the rights and freedoms of all Baha’is, in accordance with charters, human rights laws, and the Yemeni Constitution. This includes the freedom to practice belief, and that the citizenship rights of Baha’is not be diminished. [The Houthis should] rescind all charges against Baha’is and return all confiscated funds and property. Most importantly, stop sectarian rhetoric and incitement against Baha’is, and allow the return of the Baha’is who were expelled from their homeland.

Christopher Alexander is a Fellow at Eleos Justice, and co-author of their new report, ‘Killing in the Name of God: State-Sanctioned Violations of Religious Freedom’ (Eleos Justice, October 2021).

Eleos Justice thanks Hamed and his family for so generously sharing their stories. We also wish to acknowledge Hind Al-Eryani for her ongoing support of our work in Yemen.

* Hamed's quotes as extracted above have been translated from Arabic. Many thanks to Essa Alharbi for providing translation assistance.