On May 15, hundreds of Yemenis gathered in front of the Criminal Prosecution building in the capital city of Sanaa. The Houthis, an Iran-backed Shia group that has held Sanaa since 2014, are locked in a civil war with Yemen’s internationally-recognized government and its powerful backer Saudi Arabia.
Demonstrations abound in Yemen’s current turbulence – but this one and its organizers stood out. They were denouncing the arrest of Yemeni citizens of the Baha’i faith and calling for their release. The demonstrations were not led by the usual human rights crew but by tribal leaders of some of the most influential tribes in the country, prominently that of the Bani Mattar.
What brought the tribes out was the arrest of Sheikh Walid Saleh Ayyash, who has the distinction of being both a prominent tribal figure and one of the 2,000 or so Yemenis who practice the Baha’i faith. It was Ayyash’s faith that led to his arrest on April 19, as he was driving from the city of Ibb to the port of Hudaydah. Along with another Baha’i who was in the car, Ayyash was arrested by Houthi forces and transferred to the Hudaydah prison. A statement by the tribal leaders calls Ayash “a distinguished personality among the Arab tribes … well-known for his integrity and wisdom, for his love, loyalty and devotion to his country, for his tolerance and respect for the government and the law.” The leaders had previously met with Khalid Al-Mawari, the Houthi government’s Chief of Special Criminal Prosecution. He had promised them that Ayyash would be transferred to Sanaa. When that failed to happen, they organized the May 15 demonstration. But that quickly took an unexpected turn.
Lodged in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is legendary for being the ancestral homeland of many Arab tribes. In fact, per the popular semi-mythological narrative, all Arabs are divided into the Qahtanites who hail from Yemen and are “pure Arabs”, and Adnanites who became Arab later and hail from other parts of the peninsula. Yemeni tribes take pride in their Qahtanite identity – which supposedly traces their origin back to Qahtan, who is taken to be the same as Joktan in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Genesis and a descendent of Abraham through his son Ishmael. Tribal leaders therefore command a certain respect in all parts of Yemeni society.
But, on May 15, no respect was given to the Bani Mattar leaders as a member of the Prosecution Office, Rajeh Zayed, stormed out of the Houthi administration’s offices. He brandished an automatic rifle that was hanging on his shoulder and tried to incite violence. According to the statement of the tribal leaders, he called Baha’is “heretics and agents of Israel” and asked the soldiers to “kill them and don’t leave anyone behind.” He then shouted: “Today, blood will reach the knees” and, the statement goes on, “other words that are not suitable to be repeated here.” Other witnesses say that he linked the Baha’is to Jews and freemasons. Shooting ensued, as it often does in Yemen in recent times, and continued non-stop for half an hour, although there were no casualties.
Oppressed on the Order of Iran
Walid Ayyash is not the only Baha’i languishing in the jails administered by the Houthis. There are at least seven Baha'is in jail, according to Diane Ala’i, an envoy of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.
“These individuals have not had trials and our concern is that they could be held indefinitely unless pressure is exerted on the Houthi authorities,” Ala’i told IranWire in a phone interview.
What Ala’i calls the “dire situation” of the Baha’is has recently become worse. In the terrible month of April, in addition to Ayyash, Badiullah Sana’i, a civil engineer, was arrested when he went to the Houthi courts upon the issuing of a summons. Twenty-four other Baha’is who were issued the same summons refused to present themselves for the obvious reason that they would be arrested without cause. In May, the news of cholera outbreaks in Sanaa’s central prison led to more worries for the community.
None of this is novel for the Baha’is, who are used to state suppression in the Middle East, especially in Iran, where the more than 300,000 followers make up the country’s largest religious minority, and where they are brutally suppressed. In 1991, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei approved a document, issued by the High Council of Cultural Revolution, which outlined official policy toward the Baha’is. Their material progress was to be blocked and they were to be stopped from enrolling in universities. The document also called for “countering and destroying their [Baha’is’] cultural roots abroad.”
There are reasons to believe that the recent crackdown on Baha’is is orchestrated from Tehran – the main ideological and political backer of the Houthis. Ever since the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital on the back of mass protests during the chaos of Yemen’s civil war, some Houthi officials have found time to go after the Baha’is.
Breaking the Silence to Secure the Release of Baha'i Prisoners
The international rights community has started to connect the dots. On May 22, Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said the suppression of the Baha’is in Yemen was eerily like “the persecution suffered by the Baha’is living in Iran.” Shaheed knows the topic well since he used to handle the Iranian human rights brief at the UN.
The Baha’is themselves have also come to the same belief in Iranian complicity. When Ala’i addressed the UN’s Human Rights Council July 20 session in Geneva to complain of the crackdown on Baha’is in Iran, she spoke of Iran having “exported its persecution of Baha’is to Yemen.”
The anti-Baha’i crackdown was already evident in August 2016, when 60 participants of an educational gathering organized by the Baha’i-run Nida Foundation for Development were arrested. At least half were Baha’is and six were children. Anyone who, like your correspondent, has attended similar Baha’i educational meetings can attest to their innocuous nature. Nothing, in other words, to justify the storming of the meeting by the balaclava-wearing forces of Yemen’s Houthi-run National Security Bureau. Among those Baha’is arrested at that meeting were Nadim Tawfiq al-Sakkaf, the British Council’s country manager in Yemen, his brother, Nader, and Keyvan Ghadari, an Iranian national who has lived in Yemen for years.
It was only the tireless activism of Ruhiyeh and Nahfeh, respectively the wives of Nadim and Nader, which led to their release. These sisters-in-law were among the initial arrestees themselves and were forced to share a jacket and a damp cell. Released with other young women at the event, upon signing a pledge to not engage in Baha’i activities, they soon found that their silence was not helping anyone. According to Nahfeh’s interviews with the media, they initially promised to keep quiet but when, after three weeks, the husbands were not released, they broke their silence and worked hard to ensure the men would be freed.
When IranWire spoke to Nadim and Ruhiyeh, top among their concerns was another Baha’i who still lingers in jail.
Hamed Bin Haydara was arrested in al-Mukalla in December, 2013. Yemen’s official government carried out the arrest; the Houthis were yet to start their government-seizing revolt. Haydara was charged with apostasy, working for the Israeli government and undermining the independence of the Yemeni state, all of which carries the death penalty under Yemeni law.
The man behind the arrest was the above-mentioned Khaled al-Mawari – who was among the officials to secure high positions under the Houthi government, which has allied with forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman who ruled Yemen (and, before the country’s unification in 1990, North Yemen) for decades by driving a bargain between the Saudis, the United States and Yemen's various tribes. Among the many ironies of the Yemeni story is that the Houthis, who describe themselves as anti-corruption revolutionaries, have closely allied with Saleh, whose authoritarian presidency was the first target of the protests that rocked Yemen in 2011 as part of the Arab wave of uprisings. The Houthis should remember al-Mawari well since, in 2005, it was he who ordered the arrest of 20 of Houthi activists.
According to Nadim and Ruhiyeh, Mr Haydara has been brutally tortured in jail.
“In the first four months, he was being tortured with cold water, electrocution, beatings and so on … he lost hearing in one ear because of that and one of his eyes was damaged,” Nadim says.
Learning their lesson from the previous case, Houthi authorities have now also targeted Haydara’s wife, Elham Muhammad Hossain Zara'i, who has been fighting for his release for over three years while also caring for three daughters. Zara'i is believed to be in hiding. Haydara’s court date has been postponed on several occasions; it was last scheduled to take place on August 1, but IranWire could not confirm whether the trial had happened or not. A Facebook group campaigning for his release has not posted any public updates since July 31.
Haydara’s family are well liked among the Baha’is and the broader community. They have lived on the island of Socotra since 1945, when his father arrived from Iran to work as a doctor under British colonial rule. He was later granted citizenship and Haydara is himself Yemen-born. But there are worries that he might be deported to Iran.
Rajeh Zayed: Tehran's Man in Sanaa
According to Abdullah Salem, a Doha-based Yemeni activist who spoke to IranWire using a pseudonym, Rajeh Zayed’s particular zeal against the Baha’is is no accident.
“Zayed is Tehran’s man,” Salem said. “This isn’t because of any particular revolutionary belief. Like many of the Houthi officials, it’s a power game and they are ready to go the extra mile for pleasing Tehran. And what pleases them more than suppressing the Baha’is?”
Conspiratorial theories are part and parcel of Houthi propaganda. Their very logo is proudly emblazoned with “Damn the Jews” in addition to “Death to Israel” and “Death to USA.” Salem says some Houthis have been telling their supporters that Baha’is are agents of Israel and that they want to turn the Socotra Islands, located miles away from the Yemeni mainland, into a Baha’i colony.
Despite all this, Yemen’s Baha’is enjoy a good level of public support. Mwatana, a leading human rights NGO, has been providing their legal defense, Ala’i says. “Yemenis from all walks of life are supporting Baha’is but, unfortunately, to this day, it has not had an effect on their situation and Houthi authorities are not willing to grant them a proper and fair trial so that they are proven innocent of all accusations,” she adds.
Baha’is have lived in Yemen for many years. The Bab, a progenitor of the faith (who counted the faith’s founder Baha’u’llah among his early followers), is known to have stopped in the Yemeni port of Al-Mocha in the mid 19th-century on his way to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. While Al-Mocha is known as a major coffee marketplace that gave its name to Mocha Beans, most Baha’is know it as a place from which Bab wrote a letter to his followers. Baha’is are now present in every corner of the country. While many arrived as migrants from Iran or Iraq, there are a growing number of tribal figures who have found the faith online and joined it for its promise of peace and solace. Despite the caricatures to the contrary, Yemeni society seems to be more tolerant of this new faith than their Tehran-inspired authorities.
Additional reporting by Saleem Vaillancourt