Coronavirus: Yemen’s Bahai 'at high risk' in Houthi prisons

The Iran-backed rebels must follow up on pledge to release the prisoners, rights groups say

epa05242653 A Yemeni soldier (R) keeps watch as Baha'i Faith members hold banners during a protest against the trial of member of the Baha'i Faith Hamed Haydara, outside the state security court in Sana?a, Yemen, 03 April 2016. According to reports, Yemeni authorities have indicted Hamed Haydara, a Yemeni national who was detained in December 2013 accused of being a spy for Israel and converting Muslims to the Baha'i Faith.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Bahai detainees held in Houthi prisons in Yemen are at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, rights groups said on Thursday.

The Iran-backed rebels announced in March that they were to release Bahai leader Hamed bin Haydara and another five Bahai detainees, but they remain behind bars.

"The Houthi authorities must honour their agreement to release the Bahai prisoners. Keeping prisoners of conscience is egregious on its own terms. Refusing to release them during a pandemic to which prisoners are particularly vulnerable is a whole new level of immorality," Anthony Vance, Director of the US Bahai Office of Public Affairs, told The National.

The Bahai community said two detainees in Sanaa’s Central Prison, where the six Bahai are held, have been diagnosed with the virus.

“The Bahais should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and now it is urgent that the Houthis follow through on their promise to set them free,” Mr Vance said.

Prisons in Sanaa are “hotbeds” for coronavirus outbreaks due to their unsanitary and abysmal conditions, Diane Ala’i, the Bahai International Community’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said in a statement.

“The six Bahais, who have been tortured and denied medical care for years, are like all the other prisoners in similar conditions: very vulnerable to the disease,” Ms Ala’i said.

“Holding these individuals in prison carries grave health risks and even death. It is inexplicable and irresponsible,” she said.

Yemen has a devastated health care system due to years of war and humanitarian catastrophes. Reports indicate that the Houthis have denied the outbreak's existence in areas under their control.  
The country has recorded 419 infected cases of the disease and 95 deaths, but many say that the numbers are much higher.

The rebels “should act on their orders and avoid health risks to people who should never have been jailed by releasing the Bahai detainees immediately,” said a report by Human Rights Watch.

“Health risks to the Bahai and other detainees are acute,” the report said.

For years, human rights groups have denounced what they say is unlawful incarceration of the Bahais in Yemen and have demanded that the minority be allowed to practice its faith freely.
There has been concern about the treatment of Bahai prisoners by the rebels, who have controlled much of northern Yemen and Sanaa, the capital, since the war began in 2014. 
The Bahai community says Mr bin Haydara was beaten and given electric shocks in prison and forced to sign documents while blindfolded.