(Sanaa) – The Yemeni government should drop all charges against a member of the Baha’i faith, which violate his basic rights to freedom of religion.

Authorities have detained Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, 50, without trial since December 2013. They have often denied him access to lawyers and family and subjected him to torture, his wife, Elham Muhammad Hossain Zara`i, told Human Rights Watch. The authorities allege that Haydara attempted to convert Yemeni Muslims and collaborated with Israel.

“The charges against Hamed Kamel Haydara appear to be based entirely on his adherence to the Baha’i faith, flagrantly violating his right to freedom of religion,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Haydara should be released immediately and his allegations of torture impartially investigated.”

On January 8, 2015, the Specialized Criminal Court prosecutor issued an indictment claiming that Haydara was an Iranian citizen, using a false name, who arrived in Yemen only in 1991. Photocopies of his Yemini ID and passport provided by his wife show he was born in Yemen in 1964, however. The prosecutor charged him with collaborating with Israel by working for the Universal House of Justice, the Baha’i supreme governing institution, which is based in Haifa, Israel. They also allege that he lured potential Muslim converts to the Baha’i faith through charitable giving and tried to “establish a homeland for the followers of the Baha’i faith” in Yemen.

In the indictment, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the prosecutor charges Haydara under Yemen’s Penal Code with committing, among other crimes, “an act that violates the independence of the republic, its unity, or the integrity of its lands,” “working for a foreign state’s interests,” “insulting Islam,” and “apostasy.” The prosecutor is seeking “the maximum possible penalty,” which for some of these charges is death, and confiscation of his property. The prosecutor’s office has informed Haydara that his next hearing is scheduled for February 22, 2015.

On December 3, 2013, officers from the National Security Bureau (NSB), one of the country’s intelligence agencies, arrested Haydara at his workplace in Balhaf, in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa, and transferred him to an NSB detention center in Sanaa, the capital. On December 17, six security officers searched his home and confiscated paperwork, laptops, and other electronic equipment, his wife told Human Rights Watch. She said that despite her repeated inquiries, authorities refused to give any reasons for his detention until August 2014.

During his first nine months in detention, the authorities denied Haydara access to his lawyer and his family, Zara`i said. She was allowed to speak with him for the first time over the phone on June 3, 2014, but could not visit him until September 2, following intervention by foreign diplomats and others. The authorities then transferred his case file to the attorney general. Haydara told his wife that during the first 45 days of his incarceration, officers beat him with a metal rod, causing him to lose hearing in his left ear, subjected him to electric shocks, and forced him to stand in a bucket of cold water. He said that National Security officers accused him of spying for Israel and proselytizing, and forced him to sign a 19-page document while blindfolded and without knowledge of its contents. Authorities transferred Haydara to Sanaa Central Prison on October 6.

Zara`i told Human Rights Watch that in a September 4 meeting with one of the judges presiding over the case, he threatened her with prison because of her faith and told her that all Baha’is should be imprisoned.

Most of the charges against Haydara relate to his practice of the Baha’i faith and violate article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states: 

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

This right can be limited only when “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Yemen ratified the ICCPR in 1987 and is bound under international treaty law to implement its provisions.

Yemen’s penal code includes provisions that impose criminal penalties for renouncing Islam as well as attempting to convert Muslims to other faiths.

About 1,000 Baha’i members live in Yemen. The case against Haydara is not the first of its kind in Yemen, according to representatives of the global Baha’i community. In June 2008, National Security officers arrested Behrooz Rouhani, a Baha’i man, and two visiting Baha’i friends, all of whom carried Iranian passports, at Rouhani’s home in Sanaa. Rouhani told Human Rights Watch that the officers handcuffed and blindfolded them and then searched his home, confiscating many Baha’i books, video cassettes, and documents. They said they were kept handcuffed and blindfolded the first two days of their detention.

Officers arrested a fourth Baha’i man, who carried an Iraqi passport, the next day. Rouhani told Human Rights Watch that officers interrogated him the first week every night for five or six hours, questioning him about his faith and accusing him of trying to convert Muslims and of collaboration with Israel. The four were released without charge after 120 days. The authorities told them to leave Yemen within two months, but this order was later revoked and two of them still live in Yemen.

Local human rights activists have reported that past Yemeni governments also imposed unlawful restrictions on other religious minorities, including Christian, Jewish, and Ismaili individuals.

Based on comments she said she heard from NSB officers, Zara’i fears authorities may deport Haydara to Iran. Punishing citizens by exiling them is a violation of fundamental rights under international law. Article 12 of the ICCPR states, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” The Human Rights Committee, the international expert committee that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has interpreted article 12 to mean that this includes the exiling or banning of citizens based on repressive domestic laws. The committee concluded that “There are few, if any, circumstances in which deprivation of the right to enter one’s own country could be reasonable. A State party must not, by stripping a person of nationality or by expelling an individual to a third country, arbitrarily prevent this person from returning to his or her own country.”

Even if Haydara were found not to be a Yemeni citizen, he still may not be deported to a country where he faces persecution or abuse. Because of his Baha’i faith, Haydara would probably face persecution in Iran, Human Rights Watch said.

Haifa, in present-day Israel, has been the Baha’i faith’s administrative headquarters since 1868, when the city was under Ottoman rule. The Iranian government, like the Yemeni authorities in Haydara’s case, routinely uses the connection to accuse Baha’is in Iran of spying for Israel, with which Iran has hostile relations. The Baha’i faith originated in Iran, but its members suffer severe persecution there, including arbitrary detention and prosecution related solely to their religious activities, restrictions on access to higher education, confiscation of property, and destruction and desecration of their cemeteries. Iran’s judiciary often charges and convicts Baha’is of unlawful links with foreign governments, including Israel. Seven leaders of the Iranian Baha’i community are serving prison sentences, ranging from 7 to 20 years, on charges that include propaganda against the state and espionage on behalf of foreign governments.

“Hamed Kamal Haydara is a victim of a Yemeni government policy that persecutes the Baha’i,” Whitson said. “The case sheds a disturbing light on the government’s mistreatment of the country’s religious minorities.”