Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:46 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside 2:46 pm, 1st March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate Jim Shannon on securing the debate, his wide-ranging speech and indeed his overall commitment to religious freedom. The contributions of all hon. Members have shown how important it is to remain vigilant about attacks on religious freedom, whether in this country or elsewhere.

I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith. On numerous occasions, together with other hon. Members, I have raised the plight and persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. However, today I draw attention to a disturbing development: the persecution of Baha’is in Yemen, driven by Iran. I speak specifically of the case of Mr Hamed bin Haydara, a Yemeni Baha’i sentenced to death by public execution by a Houthi-controlled court in Sana’a on 2 January. The persecution of the Baha’i community in Yemen is a recent, extremely disturbing development, and Mr bin Haydara’s case is a graphic illustration of a growing problem, which is a matter of great concern.

Mr bin Haydara is a 54-year-old father of three who has been detained since 3 December 2013. He was first arrested by the national security agency in Sana’a. In the early months of his detention, he was subject to torture, beatings and electric shocks, and he was forced to sign documents while blindfolded. He was detained without charge for 13 months until January 2015, when he was charged with collaboration with the State of Israel, apostasy and harming the political status of the Republic of Yemen. The prosecutor sought the death penalty. More than half of the 38 court hearings in his trial were postponed or cancelled, and the death sentence was announced in his absence. That must raise questions of due process, even in the troubled country of Yemen.

The Baha’i community has reported that six other members of its community are detained in Houthi-controlled prisons and that arrest warrants were issued for a further 25 Baha’is, so there are fears of a wider crackdown on the Yemeni Baha’i community. It appears that elements of the national security agency and the prosecution service in Sana’a are determined to persecute them.

The memorandum of the Iranian supreme revolutionary cultural council in 1991 dealt with the Baha’i question. It stated:

“A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country.”

It is believed that that policy is now being enacted in Yemen. Indeed, it is deeply disturbing to hear the analysis of the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, who on 22 May 2017 observed:

“The recent escalation in the persistent pattern of persecution of the Baha’i community in Sana’a mirrors the persecution suffered by the Baha’is living in Iran”.

In view of the gravity of the threat to the life of Hamed bin Haydara and the steadily increasing oppression of the innocent Baha’i community in Yemen, particularly in those areas under the control of the Houthis, will the Minister request that the UK mission speak under agenda item 10 of this 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation of Yemeni Baha’is? Will the UK mission also inquire specifically about Mr bin Haydara’s case and that of other Yemeni Baha’is during the interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed? Of course, it is he who has already drawn attention to the plight of the Baha’is in Yemen and the concerns he feels about that.

Those are just two steps that could and should be taken to raise the plight of the Baha’is in Yemen. We must not let them down, and I hope the Minister can give me a positive response to both requests.