(RNS) — After almost three years, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen continues to worsen, with more than 10,000 needless deaths, and new dimensions of horror, including famine and a cholera epidemic. Other outrages, though less tangible, also attack the foundation of society. For instance, the numerous acts of violence against journalists and media institutions augurs poorly for freedom of speech.
The Houthi authorities, the rebel group that rules much of Yemen, recently added freedom of religion to the list of the war’s casualties.
On Jan. 2, Hamed bin Haydara, a member of the Baha’i faith, was sentenced to public execution on trumped-up charges of espionage that belie the real reason for his harsh sentencing: his religious beliefs. Arrested in 2013 under the Hadi government just as the civil unrest in Yemen was ramping up, Haydara was held for years without trial and subjected to torture and interrogations.
After prolonged, bungled court proceedings marked mostly by a lack of due process, the Houthis convicted Haydara of spying for Israel. The proof? Benign correspondence between him and the Baha’i World Centre, the administrative center of Haydara’s faith. The center has been in what is now Israel since the late 19th century.
The bizarre sentence has already received some attention and scrutiny, with statements from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Amnesty International and several U.N. human rights experts all decrying it and demanding Haydara’s release, as well as the release of six other Baha’is who are detained in Yemen without charges. The Associated Press and Al-Arabiya have also reported on the story. But despite this wave of concern, several questions remain unanswered. Foremost among these are why the Baha’is, and why now?
One likely answer lies in the somewhat clandestine relationship between the Houthi authorities and the government of Iran. While Iran has been funneling funds to the rebel group, the country has also provided moral and political support, as Wall Street Journal Yemen reporter Asa Fitch has written.
The ramped-up persecution against the Baha’is strongly echoes the state-sponsored program of persecution against the Baha’is in Iran, which gained considerable momentum in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Baha’is in Iran have for decades been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, deprivations and torture. In the worst years just after the revolution, hundreds of Baha’is were executed. Historically, Iran’s persecution of the Baha’is has approached a genocide, and Iran has only backed down when cowed by prolonged international pressure. To Baha’is who have been anxiously monitoring the situation in Yemen, Haydara’s death sentence has a grim familiarity.
Granted, several countries in the Middle East could be said to have subpar records when it comes to religious freedom. However, the synchronicity between Iran’s support for the Houthis and the latter’s newfound intolerance for the peaceful and previously unmolested Baha’i community cannot realistically be explained as coincidence. It is highly suspicious that the Houthis, despite the pressing demands of a civil war, let alone the demands of governance and reconstruction, have given such concerted attention to persecuting a religious minority that amounts to a tiny percentage of the population.
The wider Iranian diaspora has taken notice as well. An October report in Kayhan London, a publication popular in the Iranian diaspora, also noted the cozy relationship between Iran and the Houthis in a piece about the latter’s persecution of the Baha’is.
When and if a stable state emerges from the civil war in Yemen, it will have to account for the thousands of Yemeni who have died or suffered during the power struggle that plunged the country into war. As a death sentence hangs over the head of Haydara, so also does it potentially hang over the heads of the Yemeni Baha’is as a whole, and indeed, religious freedom in that country.
Religious freedom is a foundation for any functional society. If the Houthis hope to ever earn the trust of their people or representation in a recognized government, they will need to think carefully about whether they’re really willing to sacrifice it for support from Iran. The world’s attention has been piqued, and it will be watching.
(Winston Nagan is a former chairman of the board of directors of Amnesty International and is professor emeritus of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He currently serves as chairman of the board of the World Academy of Art and Science. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)