Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

US classing Houthis as religious persecutors not enough, say Yemeni activists

The designation this week puts the Yemen rebels on a list alongside ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Somalia’s Al Shabab

Protesters during the trial of the Bahai leader Hamed bin Haydara, outside the state security court in Sanaa. EPA
Protesters during the trial of the Bahai leader Hamed bin Haydara, outside the state security court in Sanaa. EPA

Yemeni government officials and rights activists have hailed a move by the United States to designate the country’s rebel Houthi movement for violating religious freedoms, but say that more than words is needed to curtail the group’s abuses.

Alongside ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Somalia’s Al Shabab and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are now designated as a radical group that carries out systematic, egregious violations of religious freedoms.

“The Houthi group have been committing severe violations and horrible crimes against the Yemenis entirely including the religious minorities,” Yemen's Deputy Human Rights Minister Majed Fadhil told The National.

“Designating the Houthi militia in the list of the religious freedom violators is not enough, they must be internationally prosecuted and punished for the war crimes they have been committing against the Yemeni people in general and against the religious minorities in particular,” Mr Fadhil said.

He specifically pointed to the country’s Bahai minority as several of the group’s leaders are on trial in cases condemned by the US and others as tantamount to religious persecution.

Members of the Bahai 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. Reuters
Members of the Bahai faith demonstrate outside a state security court during a hearing in the case of a fellow Bahai man charged with seeking to establish a base for the community in Yemen, in the country's capital Sanaa April 3, 2016. Reuters

“The Bahai minority got the lion’s share of the Houthis abuses; they have been rounding up the followers of this faith into their prisons, dozens of the Bahais have been detained in Houthi [prisons] in Sanaa for more than five years, the Houthis torture them and try them for fake trumped-up charges,” Mr Fadhil explained.

“The leader of the Bahai minority, Hamed bin Haiydara, has been held in solitary confinement by the Houthi rebels in Sanaa for more than five years. He was exposed to brutal torture that caused him movement disability,” he said.

The US government classification on Sunday says the Houthi rebels are a group of particular concern.

“These designations underscore the United States’ commitment to protect those who seek to exercise their freedom of religion or belief. We believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, should have the right to live according to the dictates of their conscience,” the statement read.

“We will continue to challenge state and non-state entities that seek to infringe upon those fundamental rights and to ensure they are held to account for their actions,” it said.

The US decision to designate the Houthis in the list of groups that breach religious freedoms was welcomed by the Yemeni government as a step towards a shift in US policy regarding the rebel group.

Anthony Vance, the Director of the US Bahai Office of Public Affairs, elaborated on the abuses his co-religionists face in Yemen at the hands of the rebel Houthi movement.

“The abuses against the Bahais in Yemen have been well-documented, and repeatedly publicised in news outlets around the world,” he told The National.

“Such abuses include the ongoing court case of Hamed bin Haydara, who was sentenced to death in 2018 on false charges, the arbitrary imprisonment and indictment of several other Bahais, and the continued harassment against other members of our community,” he said.

“We urge the Houthis to stop their religiously motivated persecution against the Bahais. It is probably no coincidence that their behaviour towards the Bahais mirrors that of their Iranian benefactors,” Mr Vance added, pointing to similar targeted harassment, imprisonment and marginalisation of the religion’s followers in Iran.

Bahai members hold banners during a protest against the trial of member of leader Hamed bin Haydara, outside the state security court in Sanaa in 2016. EPA
A Yemeni soldier keeps watch as Bahai members hold banners during a protest against the trial of member of the Bahai leader Hamed bin Haydara, outside the state security court in Sanaa. EPA

The spokesman for the Bahai minority in Yemeni, Abdullah Al Olofi, described the US step to include the Houthis in its list of religious offenders as a step taken too late, but added that the US is not alone in this.

“Not just the US, but the international community is late to designate the Houthis in the list of the entities of concern due to the violations committed by the Houthi authorities against the Bahais and the other minorities in Yemen,” Mr Al Olofi told The National.

“I expect other nations to take the same action against the Houthis after the statement which was issued by the US Department of State,” Mr Al Olofi added.

Lawyer Hani Al Aswadi, the head of the My Right Centre for Human Rights and Freedoms said he considered the US resolution “not enough” pointing out it was not just the Bahais who have faced persecution but also Sunni Muslim religious groups and Yemen’s small Jewish community who he said were being driven from the country.

The Yemeni lawyer and the human rights activist Huda Al Sarari described the US declaration against the Houthis as a change in the American policy regarding the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“The resolution …indicates a clear change in the American policy regarding the Houthis as the US has been turning a blind eye to their crimes against the Yemeni people for more than five years,” Ms Al Sarari told The National.

“We as human rights organisations and advocates must make use of the American decision against the Houthis,” she said. They should be “pushing the case to the International Criminal Court to be internationally persecuted and tried for their war crimes.”

Updated: December 24, 2019 09:07 PM

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