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Armed Houthi gunmen stormed a peaceful Baha’i annual general meeting in Sanaa, Yemen, detaining at least 17 including 5 women, May 25, 2023. © 2023 Private

(Beirut) – Armed Houthi forces stormed a private residence in Sanaa, Yemen on May 25, 2023, where Yemeni Baha’is were meeting, and detained and subsequently disappeared 17 people, Human Rights Watch said today. The Baha’is, a religious community and a minority in Yemen, have faced ongoing persecution by the Houthis, the de facto authorities in Sana’a, the capital, and much of Yemen.

“Houthi authorities’ flagrant targeting of Baha’is solely on the basis of their religious beliefs is a clear violation of their human rights,” said Niku Jafarnia, Yemen and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should immediately reveal the condition and whereabouts of the detained Baha’is, release everyone detained solely for the peaceful religious practice, and respect the rights of all Yemenis to freedom of expression and belief.”

The Baha’i International Community (BIC), a nongovernmental group that represents Baha’is worldwide, said that the meeting was an annual gathering to elect the Yemeni Baha’i community’s national governing body. Seventeen people were there, while several others joined remotely via Zoom.

Human Rights Watch spoke with one individual who witnessed the storming of the meeting via Zoom. He recorded a part of the incident, and the Baha’i International Community subsequently shared the video on Twitter. He told Human Rights Watch that about 15 minutes into the meeting, just as they were finishing introductions, he suddenly heard a loud bang, which he described as “like a door being knocked in,” and then shouting in the background.

He said that people at the meeting looked frightened and stood up, and then four armed men wearing Houthi uniforms entered, pushed people further into the room, and barred them from leaving. The video clip he shared appears to show Houthi forces entering the room and forcing people there to sit down.

“I heard screaming and crying voices in the background. I saw their faces … they were shocked and some of them automatically raised their hands,” he said. Shortly afterward, one of the Houthi men apparently closed the laptop, and the person on Zoom no longer was able to see what was happening.

According to the Baha’i International Community, all 17 people were detained and driven away. Houthi authorities have not responded to the victims’ families’ requests for information about the whereabouts of their loved ones, making it likely that they have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Nader Al-Sakkaf, the executive secretary of the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha'is of Yemen, a Yemeni Baha’i advocacy group, shared on Twitter that “[t]he BIC has also been alerted to other incidents suggesting that the raid may be the first of more attempts by security to target Baha’is across Houthi-controlled Yemen.”

The recent events are part of what the United Nations expert on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, previously described as a “persistent pattern of persecution” of the Baha’is by the Houthis. Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi movement, gave a speech in 2018 in which he called Baha’is “infidels,” and “urged Yemenis to defend their country from the Baha’is and members of other religious minorities.”

Houthis have systematically arrested and disappeared Baha’is and forced Baha’is into exile. In 2016, Houthi authorities raided a Baha’i educational conference in Sana’a and arrested over 60 men, women, and children. Later, in 2018, the Houthis charged 24 people, at least 22 of them Baha’i, with espionage and apostasy in a Houthi-run court without due process. The cases all remain active today. In 2020, the Houthis released six Baha’is who had been wrongly detained for several years but subsequently forced them into exile.

Many other members of the Yemeni Baha’i community have similarly been forced into exile to escape persecution. The Baha’i member who spoke with Human Rights Watch and witnessed the raid via Zoom said that his name was on the list of 24 people wrongly charged with espionage and apostasy, which forced him and his family to flee the country. He said that “many were forced to relocate to new houses, sometimes to new cities,” and that they have all needed to “keep a low profile.”

The recent attack on the peaceful gathering further underscores the urgent need for international pressure to address the Houthis’ ongoing persecution faced by the Baha’i community, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Houthis have systematically violated the rights of minorities in Yemen and show no sign of letting up on the pressure,” Jafarnia said. “The international community should stand in solidarity with the Baha’i community and exert pressure on the Houthi authorities to release the detained people immediately.”

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