In an alarming turn of events, 30 of 36 academics and political figures on trial in Yemen have been handed death sentences on “charges of espionage for Saudi Arabia and its allies in the international coalition”, Amnesty International reported on July 9.
In a statement, Amnesty called the trial a “mockery of justice and slammed the judiciary for having been turned into “a tool of repression, evidently incapable of dispensing impartial justice”.
According to witnesses present at the court and “to the surprise of the legal defense team, the judge speedily read out the charges on which they were convicted, most of which carry a mandatory death sentence under Yemeni Criminal Law… before formally sentencing 30 to death and acquitting and releasing six others”, Amnesty reported.
The Haydara case
July 9 was also the day that Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara was brought to court to appeal against the death sentence handed to him in January 2018.
Last year, Haydara was sentenced to public execution by a specialised criminal court in Yemen’s rebel-controlled capital Sana’a.
The sentence came on the back of years of torture and detention at the hands of the National Security Bureau. Haydara, who has been in Houthi detention in Sana’a since 2013 on the charges of espionage and apostasy, is one among 2,000 Baha’is in Yemen.
According to the Bahá’í International Community, in its latest missive, the trial continues to be a travesty of justice. Haydara was notified of his latest hearing only the night before July 9.
In Yemen, an Islamic society, the constitution recognises no other religion barring Judaism. Since 2014, rights organisations have called out the discrimination against the Baha’is, a peaceful religious minority, in Yemen time and again.
Beyond the charges of apostasy, the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels also allege that Haydara is a spy for Israel and an Iranian citizen who crossed into Yemen in 1991 using a false name – even though his wife has provided documentation that he was born in Yemen in 1964.
Many of the other Baha’is in prison hold leadership positions in the Baha’i community in Yemen. According to reports, the official charges against some of the current prisoners include ‘showing kindness to the poor’ and ‘displaying good behaviour’.
In Yemen, which, according to UN, is the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” with more than 22 million people – three-quarters of the population – “in desperate need of aid and protection”, the Baha’i community has witnessed increased harassment since 2014 under the watchful eye of Tehran.
In a televised speech in 2018, the leader of the Houthis Abdel-Malek al-Houthi denounced the Baha’i faith as “satanic”, and stated that it was “waging a war of doctrine” against Islam. He urged Yemenis to defend their country from the Baha’is and members of other religious minorities.
In the aftermath of the speech, the hate being spewed surged. A prominent Houthi strategist tweeted that “we will butcher every Baha’i”.
Yemen’s internationally-recognised government has repeatedly pushed for the release of the imprisoned Baha’is, but the rebels have yet to respond.
“Hamed Haydara has been falsely charged with spying for Israel and for forging official documents,” a Yemeni government official told The National in March. “The Houthis are fabricating criminal charges against innocent members of the Baha’i faith. They are being falsely accused of espionage.”
Pointing to the flawed system of justice in Yemen in the case of Haydara, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director said in a statement in 2018:
“He 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 Hamid 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 that is causing entire families to live in fear for their safety and the safety of their loved ones.”
UN human rights representatives have also called for the rebels to overturn his death sentence several times since last year.
“We cannot accept the injustice of having anyone punished by death on the grounds of his religion or belief and for belonging to a religious minority,” UN experts said on April 29, a day before Haydara’s court date. “Not only would such a sentence amount to a serious violation of an internationally protected human right, but the court would also be sending a wrong signal to the whole nation and the world if it upheld the decision of a death sentence against Haydara.”
On July 8, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom tweeted:
Baha’i religious prisoner of conscience #HamedBinHaydara remains unjustly on death row in #Yemen as #Houthi authorities persecute him for his religious beliefs. USCIRF calls for his immediate release at tomorrow’s hearing.
— USCIRF (@USCIRF) July 8, 2019
A never-ending trial
According to the Bahá’í International Community, in September 2014, it was learnt that Haydara “had been forced to sign several documents while blindfolded and been subjected to repeated torture, including being beaten and electrocute”.
By any yardstick, Haydara was hardly given a fair trial, as can be seen by how it was dragged on for years by prosecutor Rajeh Zayyed, “who, on various occasions, demonstrated extreme prejudice against the Baha’is and blocked medical treatment requests for Haydara”.
It was only in January 2015, more than a year after he was arrested from his workplace in December 2013, that formal charges were framed against Haydara.
Several court dates were scheduled for 2015, but Haydara did not appear again in court until November 8, 2015, due to medical concerns. The December court hearing was cancelled as the judge was on leave.
In 2016, Haydara appeared in court at least six times. Finally in April 2016, the judge permitted Haydara to receive medical treatment. Over the next two years, the prosecutor was changed, documentation provided, and more hearings were cancelled and postponed.
Finally, on January 2, 2018, the Specialized Criminal Court issued a ruling that sentenced Haydara to death. Since then, the appeals process has hit many road bumps. On January 1, 2019, Haydara again stated in court that the charges were based on “lies and false accusation”.
Ahead of the April 30 hearing, local and international rights groups questioned the credibility of the charges and called on Yemeni authorities to “immediately quash” the sentence.
In April, the US Department of State also raised concerns over “credible reports that the Houthis continue to severely mistreat, arbitrarily detain, and torture Baha’is in Yemen”.
“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.