SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's Houthi rebels on Thursday freed six prominent members of the Baha'i religious minority whose years-long incarceration on charges of espionage and heresy had drawn worldwide condemnation, their lawyer said.
The release of the six came four months after the Shiite Houthis, who control most of northern Yemen and the capital, Sanaa, announced they had commuted the death sentence of Bahai leader Hamed bin Haydara and ordered his release, as well as that of the other five detainees.
The six men were flown out of Yemen to Ethiopia late Thursday, said bin Haydara's wife, Alham.
"Today we feel joy after so much suffering," she told the Associated Press over the phone, adding she and her daughters were threatened and harassed by anonymous callers over the years of her husband's detention. She now lives in Luxembourg with the children.
"The sentence was unjust and the charges baseless," she added.
Houthi judicial officials said the Baha'is were required to leave Yemen as a condition of their release. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Bin Haydara was arrested in 2013 by the government of President Mansour Abed Rabbo Hadi, before the Iran-backed Houthis came to power. After the Houthis overran Sanaa, forcing Hadi to flee and igniting a civil war with a Saudi-led military coalition, bin Haydara was transferred to a Houthi prison where he languished until Thursday.
A Houthi court sentenced him to death in 2018, prompting sharp criticism from human rights groups that decried the verdict as a sign of the Iran-backed Houthis' systematic repression of religious minorities.
The Baha'i have been particularly vulnerable to persecution and pressure to convert to Islam by the Houthis who consider Bahaism heresy for its belief in a 19th-century Persian prophet and his revelation that departs from traditional teachings of Shiite Islam.
The other five Bahai members were arrested in 2017. Throughout their years in prison, all were tortured, barred from seeing their lawyers, denied access to medical care and placed in solitary confinement, according to the Baha'i International Community. Bin Haydara was blindfolded, beaten, electrocuted and forced to confess to being a "destroyer of Islam" and spy for Israel, the community reported. He was sentenced to a public execution for his religious beliefs.
Their release followed months of international pressure this spring from the United Nations and rights groups, as the coronavirus pandemic surged across war-torn Yemen, raising fears of unchecked contagion in crowded Houthi prisons.
"We welcome the releases today yet remain gravely concerned," said Diane Ala'i, a representative of the Baha'i International Community. "Baha'is must be able — like all Yemenis — to practice their faith safely and freely."