Hamed bin Haydara – Yemeni Bahá’í: House of Commons debate

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the death sentence verdict made against Hamed bin Haydara, a Yemeni Bahá’í, in Sana’a on 2 January this year.

The Minister for Europe and the Americas (Sir Alan Duncan)
We are very concerned that the Bahá’ís are being persecuted for their religious beliefs in Yemen, particularly in areas controlled by the Houthis and forces aligned to the late former President Saleh. We strongly condemn this mistreatment and continue to work closely with our partners, including the European Union, to raise the issue directly with the de facto authorities.

We are aware of Mr bin Haydara’s death sentence and have sought to raise the profile of his situation through public diplomacy. The immediate release of all Bahá’ís in Yemen imprisoned for their religious beliefs was a key demand in the September United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, which we supported. We will work closely with all partners to ensure its full implementation.

Bob Blackman
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Members right across the House have concerns about the denial of freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none. The threat to execute Hamed bin Haydara constitutes a grave risk to the life of an innocent man—a father of three—and would accelerate the climate of persecution against the wider Bahá’í community in Yemen as a whole.

Mr bin Haydara was arrested in December 2013 and has been subjected to torture, beating and electrocution. He has been forced to sign confessions under duress. More than half of the nearly 40 court hearings on his case have been cancelled, raising serious questions about whether there has been any due process. He has been denied treatment for medical conditions that came about as a direct result of the torture inflicted on him. He was not even permitted to be present at the court hearing when he was sentenced to death.

I have a series of questions for my right hon. Friend to answer, if he can. Have the UK Government any further lines of communication for making representations to the Houthi authorities, who hold the power in Sana’a? I am advised that the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is taking up the case and is in Geneva today. What pressure will he be able to apply at the UN on the Houthis and their backers to persuade them to release this innocent man? How much is known about the situation of other Bahá’ís imprisoned in Sana’a? They are reported to be Keyvan Ghaderi, Walid Ayyash, Mahmood Humaid, Wael al-Arieghie, Badiullah Sana’i and Akram Ayyash. They have all been detained recently and are under threat.

Will the Minister also say what measures can be taken in respect of reports that senior figures in the national security office and the prosecutor’s office are ​receiving instructions from Iran to persecute the Bahá’í community? The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief has observed

“the persistent pattern of persecution of the Bahá’í community”.

If the Minister can answer those questions, the whole House will be deeply grateful.

Sir Alan Duncan
First, I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend for raising this subject. It is always proper for matters of individual justice of this sort to be raised in the House. Opposing the persecution of religious minorities is a very high priority for the Foreign Office and our diplomatic efforts as we enter this year.

The Bahá’í faith has been persecuted for the best part of one and a half centuries; the situation described by my hon. Friend is, sadly, a further example of that phenomenon. Although Mr bin Haydara is neither a British national nor an employee of any organisation related to Her Majesty’s Government, that does not in any way diminish our indignation at what is happening and our wish to try to defend his interests and see him released. To that end, we are, of course, also in close contact with the Bahá’í community in London about this case and the wider situation of Bahá’ís in Yemen.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions that are very difficult to answer in the context of Yemen, which is essentially a failing state. Mr bin Haydara is held not by the official Government but by the Houthis, who are deemed to be the insurgent force in Yemen and are essential to any successful political outcome the likes of which we are trying to pursue. Getting further lines in to the Houthis on a particular case such as this is therefore extremely difficult—it is difficult, of course, to engage them even in the main thrust of the political solution we would like to see in Yemen. To that end, as my hon. Friend says, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is in Geneva today helping to corral the collective effort that we hope can increase and optimise our influence in this case and on the future of Yemen itself.

We estimate that there are about 2,000 Bahá’ís in Yemen, and to identify the fate of any individual within that large number is very difficult. We do not have direct diplomatic representation in Sana’a or the sort of detailed engagement with the Houthis that would be necessary to address such issues. It is undeniable that Iranian influence has been drawn into Yemen more than was the case five years ago, when the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative sought a replacement for then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The current President, President Hadi, has, I am afraid, very little influence over such cases. I very much hope, therefore, that the Iranians will use their efforts to go for justice rather than the persecution of people such as Mr bin Haydara.

Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing it. As he explained, the facts in this case are clear: Mr Haydara was arrested in southern Yemen in December 2013 and has suffered torture since; his family and lawyers have not been allowed to see him during that time; and he has been forced to sign a 19-page confession while wearing a blindfold, on the basis of which he was charged with spreading the Bahá’í faith in Yemen. All of these events took place ​under the Government of President Hadi, not the Houthi rebels who took power in early 2015, but it is the Houthis who have held Mr Haydara since then and it is their courts that have now sentenced him to death, so responsibility for this case clearly lies with the Houthis and their supporters in the Iranian regime—we all know the terrible history of Bahá’í persecution in Iran.

As well as Mr Haydara, five other Bahá’ís are in detention, awaiting trial for no crime other than their religion. We in this House all agree that they must be freed and that Mr Haydara’s death sentence must be quashed. Will the Minister use his influence with the Iranians, who are the ones with influence at the moment, in dealing with the Houthis? He needs to apply as much pressure as he can, because this sentence could be carried out very quickly, so a life is at stake. The Iranians are the key players here. Will he guarantee that he will raise these cases when it becomes possible to renew talks on a political settlement in Yemen? Finally, will he request assurances from the Saudi Government that if President Hadi is restored to power in Yemen, he will cease persecution of the Bahá’í faith?

Sir Alan Duncan
The hon. Gentleman’s perfectly fair questions illustrate the deep complexities of Yemen at the moment. Unfortunately, we cannot just deal with the legitimate Government in the way we might expect to do with other countries. This is a failing state, with the legitimate President, President Hadi, wielding far less power than one would wish and the Houthis wielding far more power than one would wish. Relations on this sort of consular case—if I can describe it as such—are very difficult and our ability to have the influence we would like is far less than we would like.

The Houthis are Zaidis, not classic Iranian Shi’ites, so they have an affinity with Iran, but it is wrong to say that they take all their orders from it and are its straightforward puppets. The history of Yemen suggests that the position of the Houthis is rather more complex than that. There is an undoubted affinity, however, and one that has grown over the past two or three years. Because of that, we will of course use all our diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the Iranians to understand that there is deep concern in this House and more widely across the world about the way in which Mr Haydara and others are being treated.

I absolutely assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in his dealings with the Iranians, which have increased over the past couple of months, will not fail to raise this issue and the broader issue of religious freedom on any occasion.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
I thank the Minister for his comments and for speaking very gently and wisely about a matter that is actually very complex. I pay tribute to Her Majesty’s ambassador to Sana’a, Simon Shercliff, who of course is not in Sana’a. He has done an awful lot of work on the Yemen problem, yet through no fault of his own appears to be getting not very much further. I also pay tribute to the Minister for the Middle East, who likewise is doing a lot.

I associate myself with the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) on the influence of Iran in the region. Does the Minister agree ​that the rise of religiosity among the Houthis is an extremely worrying sign and something that has arisen only in the last few years? Although there have been many tribal issues in Yemen, the rise of factionalism on religious grounds is a new thing in Yemeni history.

Sir Alan Duncan
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I know that as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he will investigate the matter deeply with his Committee. He is right that one of the distressing elements of what has unfolded in Yemen over the past five years is that what was really a tribal conflict has converted into more of a sectarian conflict. That contains the danger of further escalation into a deeper proxy conflict. That is exactly the kind of rising tension and complex structure that, through our diplomatic efforts, we want to reduce and de-escalate so that we get to the point where there can be proper and realistic political discussions in that complex, tribal country to bring stability and, crucially, to overcome the massive famine, disease and rising infant mortality that are probably the worst aspect—although a deeply hidden aspect—of what is going on in Yemen.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing this issue to the House and to the Bahá’í community in the UK for raising it with me this week. As has been mentioned, the Bahá’í community in Yemen is small, but has faced disproportionate persecution by the Houthis, backed by Iran, which has included mass arrests, arbitrary detention, harassment and apparently now shutting down all the Bahá’í centres across the portion of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

The sentencing to death of 52-year-old Hamed bin Haydara is an extremely worrying development, as he has been in detention since 2013. I imagine that others who are in detention at the moment will be extremely distressed at their prospects, given this development.

Noting the context of the wider discussion of the dire situation in Yemen, will the Minister tell the House what discussions he has been able to have with his counterparts in Iran, who are alleged to be driving this religious persecution? The Bahá’í community allege that it follows a similar pattern to the persecution of Bahá’ís that has gone on in Iran.

In the wider context of countries that choose to continue using the death penalty, what is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing to update its strategy on the abolition of the death penalty? What communications could the Minister have with President Hadi, who is in exile but still has a position of influence?

Sir Alan Duncan
I assure the hon. Lady that the abolition of the death penalty is embedded in all our diplomatic and Department for International Development policies. Wherever we go, in any country, that is our policy and we do our best to argue for it wherever possible.

I have been going to Yemen for over 30 years. I have met President Hadi on about 10 occasions and I met Saleh on about 20. This is a complex country with a vicious history full of conflict and tribal division. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who, as I said, is in Geneva, has been brilliant in trying to gather the maximum possible public international and diplomatic pressure not only on this specific case, ​but for a broader settlement in Yemen. I can tell from my conversations with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on this matter that he is personally very ambitious to do his utmost to use British influence. British influence in Yemen is perhaps greater than many of us in this House realise. The voice of the UK still does matter. We want, as a priority in the Foreign Office, and indeed in No. 10, to do everything we can to use that historical influence to try to bring an end to this disastrous period of Yemeni conflict, famine, and history.

Edward Argar (Charnwood) (Con)
I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend, and indeed friend, the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) in unreservedly condemning both this death sentence and the persecution of the Bahá’í. Will my right hon. Friend set out the role that he believes the Government of the Sultanate of Oman can play not only in successfully helping with this case but, more broadly, in successfully resolving the situation in Yemen?

Sir Alan Duncan
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I think he is fast establishing himself as one of the great experts in this House, particularly on Oman and Yemen, and indeed the middle east more widely. The Sultanate of Oman, a great ally of the UK, is of enormous importance in the dynamics of any negotiations that might come forward to resolve the Yemen problem. The country’s history with Yemen matters to it, of course, but it is also next door to Iran. Its enlightenment in trying to be an honest and constructive broker with the Houthis is much appreciated in this country. The Sultanate of Oman is a country to which we attribute enormous value and affection. We look forward to working with it further as an important element in trying to find a solution to this conflict.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I thank the Minister for his statement. The judgment on Hamed Bin Haydara has called for the confiscation of his goods and also direct action against the Bahá’í, motivated very clearly by a desire to repress a peaceful religious minority. I think that some of the information coming through from the oral reports from Yemeni officials would show that Iran has an influence there. Will the Minister share with the House what representations he has had on this case, apart from those this morning? What representations are the Government going to be able to make to urge the Houthi authorities to overturn this judgment? What help can he give to the prisoners in jail who need medical attention?

Sir Alan Duncan
We have very little direct contact with the Houthis because of the complicated nature of the Yemeni conflict. However, through all available channels—public and UN pressure, the UN Human Rights Council, collective comments within the middle east through ambassadors, and other forums—we have made every conceivable representation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do so—perhaps, after this urgent question, even more noisily and robustly than before.

​Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
Will my right hon. Friend remind the House of what the UK is doing to support the UN political process?

Sir Alan Duncan
We have been a full part of the UN process ever since the Arab Spring of 2011 and the GCC initiative that saw the replacement of President Saleh with President Hadi. In 2015 there was the important UN Security Council resolution 2216. As I said earlier, the Human Rights Council resolution of September last year is an important further part of the same UN process, in which we play our full part.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Will the Minister use this opportunity to restate the Government’s opposition to the use of torture in any circumstances? Are there any new, concrete initiatives that he expects to come from the international community to try to stop the conflict in Yemen, because that is what has enabled this atrocious decision to be taken?

Sir Alan Duncan
It is very nice to have an opportunity to fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Certainly we are absolutely resolute in our opposition to torture and degrading treatment in all its forms.

As I said earlier, we really want to start this year doing everything we possibly can to get people talking. We have done so through gathering together the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Omanis and the UN. We will continue to work with them, crucially in trying to find direct contact with people in Yemen who can make a difference—something that the international community is trying to work out following the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh in December last year.

Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire) (Con)
I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. What are the Government doing to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

Sir Alan Duncan
I am familiar with this from the days when I was an International Development Minister, and even then—without such a conflict—Yemen had dire needs. We are deeply concerned by what may be nearly 500,000 cases of cholera, by rising infant mortality and by the fact that almost all the food—certainly all the rice—is imported. To that end, therefore, it has been essential to open the port of Hodeidah, which I am pleased to say has happened since last month. DFID is spending over £200 million in this financial year, but the access to those in need and the delivery of humanitarian aid remains a very complex and difficult problem in such a lawless and disintegrating society.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con)
May I thank you, Mr Speaker—as, indeed, I thank my right hon. Friend —for your dedication to religious freedom and human rights? Does my right hon. Friend agree that human rights and religious freedom are absolutely integral parts of our humanitarian and development aid work across the world?

Sir Alan Duncan
Yes. If human rights and the rule of law are not upheld, the efficacy of development is severely reduced, so I totally agree with my hon. Friend. That is written in as a principle to all the ways in which DFID goes about its business.

Stephen Kerr (Stirling) (Con)
In my experience, one could not find a more gentle and more engaging people than those of the Bahá’í faith, who bear their persecution with great forbearance. What communications has the Minister had with representatives of the Bahá’í faith in this country?

Sir Alan Duncan
We are in contact with the Bahá’í community in the UK. As I said earlier, the Bahá’ís are a gentle sect, as it were, of Islam, who fully deserve to be defended whenever this inexplicable persecution takes place. It has been going on since they were founded in the mid-19th century, and I think that their being persecuted from the start and having it persistently thrust on them for more than a century and a half is a miserable aspect of our relatively recent history.

Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s assurances of opposition to this terrible death penalty. What assessment have the Government made of the effects of the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh on the horrific crisis in Yemen and on the chances of a positive resolution?

Sir Alan Duncan
I hope the House will accept that what I am going to say are just my own thoughts, as someone who has taken an interest in Yemen for so long, rather than the official assessment of Her Majesty’s Government, because this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Whereas Ali Abdullah Saleh was working with the Houthis, he turned against them and there was a rather serious battle between the two sides, in which he died. What will now happen to the influence he wielded through the General People’s Congress and his own forces is difficult to assess at this early stage, but I suppose one can say that, at its simplest, it has probably reinforced the power of the Houthis. I hope that, from that position of strength, the Houthis might now be prepared to negotiate directly with Saudi Arabia and other interested parties, so that we can reach a political solution and put an end to this conflict.

Ross Thomson (Aberdeen South) (Con)
What role did my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Office play in the reopening of the port of Hodeidah? Its reopening is crucial for access for humanitarian aid and relief for some 7 million Yemenis who are on the brink of famine.

Sir Alan Duncan
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. While the ports remained closed, the entire country was essentially under siege and at risk of starvation. The UK Government played a very significant part in working with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to try to open the port of Hodeidah. An agreement was reached last month, and I hope that supplies are now flowing in, as they must, and that increasing supplies will flow in to bring much needed sustenance, medicine and help to a country that is in deep peril.