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(Beirut) – Authorities in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, should immediately and unconditionally release a Baha’i man arbitrarily detained for nearly four months and end persecution of the Baha’i religious community, Human Rights Watch said today.

Keyvan Qadari, 43, is the last of five dozen Baha’is detained after mass arrests on August 10, 2016. Most were released within days, but two other men were held until November 27, and then released. Qadari has not been charged, brought before a judge, or given access to a lawyer. The authorities have repeatedly refused to allow him to meet with his family, permitting only a single phone call in September.

Members of the Baha’i faith demonstrate outside of a state security court in Sanaa, Yemen, April 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

“Sanaa authorities showed their capacity for righting wrongs when they released several dozen members of the Baha’i community arbitrarily detained in August,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But the rights abuse will persist so long as Keyvan Qadari remains wrongfully detained.”

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have controlled Sanaa and large areas of Yemen since September 2014. On November 28, 2016, the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress announced a “National Salvation Government” to run the country, which oversees the Sanaa-based Interior Ministry and detention sites in Houthi- and Saleh-controlled Yemen. Human Rights Watch has documented the Sanaa-based authorities’ arbitrary and abusive detention of dozens of people and urged the authorities to release those held arbitrarily and to investigate alleged abuse in detention.

On August 10, armed members of the National Security Bureau (NSB) intelligence agency raided a Baha’i youth workshop and arrested 65 men and women, including Qadari. Later that day, security officials called Nadim al-Sakkaf and Nader al-Sakkaf, husbands of two of the women detained, Ruhiyeh Thabet and Nafheh Sanai, and told them to come to the NSB headquarters to pick up their wives, detaining both men when they arrived.

Nafheh Sanai told Human Rights Watch she was interrogated for about two hours and asked about other members of the Baha’i community and Baha’i activities in Yemen. The officer accused her of trying to convert people to the Baha’i faith, she said.

Over the following days, authorities released most of the Baha’i community members, but continued to hold Qadari, the two couples, and another woman, Mawahib Yaqoob.

The security agency released Nafheh Sanai on August 21, after she became ill and repeatedly asked to return home to her small child. Officers had not allowed her to speak with her family during her time in detention. As a condition of her release, she said, security officers forced her and her parents to sign a pledge, like other detained Baha’i community members, promising not to participate in any Baha’i activities and to only practice the Baha’i faith privately at home.

Authorities released the other two women after nearly a month. Following heavy Saudi-led coalition bombing in Sanaa in late August, Ruhiyeh Thabet begged prison officials to release her, worried about her children as both she and her husband were detained, she said. The officers agreed to release her on the condition that she remain ready to return for interrogation and sign a similar pledge, she said.

Members of the Baha’i community pressed the Sanaa-based authorities to release the three men. Security officials asked them to provide financial guarantees and to pledge to cease Baha’i activities and threatened to deport Qadari, an Iranian citizen, and other Baha’i without Yemeni nationality, the wives of the two brothers told Human Rights Watch.

Human Right Watch has documented harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention of members of the Baha’i community in Iran. International law prohibits deporting a person to a country where they would face persecution or abuse.

The released wives of the two detained brothers were allowed to see their husbands once, on October 30. Both said their husbands looked thin and their clothes worn and that the men asked for food. They and Qadari’s wife took food to the detention site on November 6 for the men, but guards refused to accept it. On November 27, the authorities released Nadim and Nadir al-Sakkaf, forcing them to sign similar pledges.

Sanaa-based authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained members of the Bahai’i community previously. This includes Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, who has been detained since December 2013, and is facing the death penalty, apparently for his religious beliefs. His next court hearing is on December 4. Houthi authorities earlier detained the al-Sakkaf brothers for two days after they attended a hearing in Haydara’s case in March 2015, interrogating them about their faith and other members of the community.

The August arrests appear to be part of the Sanaa-based authorities’ harassment of Yemen’s thousand-member Baha’i community, Human Rights Watch said. In early September, the authorities raided two community service organizations founded by Baha’i members, the Neda Foundation for Coexistence and Constructive Building, and Al Tamayyoz Development Institute, sealing the buildings, seizing files and documents, and arresting staff. The authorities also raided the homes of three Baha’i members and seized their personal computers, documents, passports, and business files.

Ruhiyeh Thabet said that her house was raided twice, and that national security officers and staff from the general prosecutor’s office confiscated the family’s electronic devices and personal documents. She said the authorities still had not returned her father’s or a friend’s passports, confiscated during those raids.

The Houthis and their allies, as the de facto authorities in Sanaa and other areas where they maintain effective control, should abide by international human rights standards applicable to Yemen. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Yemen ratified in 1987, guarantees everyone’s right “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.”

“Arresting someone on the basis of their religious beliefs or compelling them to give up those beliefs as a condition of release is an abuse of the right to freedom of religion,” Whitson said. “If they want to show their commitment to basic rights, the Houthis should allow Yemen’s Baha’i community to practice their beliefs.”

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