Houthi rebels are fabricating criminal charges against six prominent members of Yemen's Bahai' religious minority as the government presses for their release, the deputy human rights minister told The National.
Majid Fadhil said the government has repeatedly requested the release of all Baha'i detainees held by the rebels under a prisoner exchange deal agreed at UN-led peace talks in Sweden last month.
Each side submitted 8,000 names of Yemeni people they believe to be detained, dead or missing for the other side to locate and release as a confidence-building measure.
But the Iran-backed rebels have not responded to the government's request on the Baha'i detainees.
“The Houthis, through national security and Sanaa’s criminal prosecution, are falsely accusing members of the Baha’i faith over espionage cases,” Mr Fadhil said.
The charges against them include “communication with Israel because the Baha’i House of Justice is located in Haifa, Israel”, he said.
The House of Justice, the nine-member supreme ruling body of the Baha’i faith, provides a universal direction to followers.
“Baha'i religious institutions in Haifa had preceded the existence of Israel, since the Ottoman Empire and was even established before the First World War,” Mr Fadhil said.
The Baha'i faith was founded in Iran, but is opposed by the regime in Tehran. Iran grants freedom of religion to several minorities but targets the Baha'is, who believe in unity among religions.
Baha’i leader Hamed bin Haydara, 55, who has been sentenced to death, appeared in court in Sanaa on Tuesday for an unexpected hearing.
Mr Haydara has been in Houthi detention in central Sanaa since December 2013.
The leader was initially arrested after the Houthis seized control of the capital, and prosecutors in January last year accused Mr Haydara of communicating with Israel and spreading the Baha'i faith.
UN human rights representatives have called for the rebels to overturn his death sentence.
In addition to Mr Haydara, five other Baha’is are held by the rebels in Sanaa, two of whom have been forcibly hidden since last April, according to the Baha’i spokesman Abdullah Al Alafi.
"Waleed Ayyash, 51, and Wael Al Al Ariki, 41, a human-rights activist, have both been hidden," he said, adding that they were arrested simply because of their religion.
Sheikh Akram Ayyas, 37, has been in Houthi detention since October 2017, Badea Senai, 66, who was an urban planning adviser for the government, has been in prison since May 2017.
Finally, Qwan Mohammad Qadri, 45, was arrested by the Houthis in August 2016.
Mr Qadri, who is of Iranian descent, is a former employee of the British Council in Yemen.
"Yemen’s Baha'is have been subjected to abuse and persecution since 2008, forcing them to abandon their faith," Mr Al Alafi said.
The Baha'i movement dates back to 1844 and considers itself a universal religion that embraces kindness and peace and promotes religious tolerance and women's empowerment. There are an estimated 6 million followers in 235 countries around the world.