SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni authorities have questioned a member of the Baha’i faith suspected of contacts with Israel and charged him with seeking to establish a base for the community in the predominantly Muslim country, state news agency Saba reported.
But the accused’ s wife and local rights activists say the charges against Hamed Merza Kamali Serostani are part of Yemen’s wider persecution of its Baha’i community and aim to distract from charges that he was abused by interrogators after his December 2013 arrest.
Baha’is regard their faith’s 19th-century founder as the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad. But Muslim countries, including Iran where the religion originated, consider it a heretical offshoot of Islam.
Saba on Monday quoted a judicial source in the Sanaa prosecutor’s office as saying that 51-year-old Serostani, whose family is originally from Iran, was arrested last year in al-Mukalla, capital of Hadramout province in eastern Yemen.
The charge sheet said Serostani entered Yemen in 1991 before seeking to bribe Yemenis to leave Islam and join his religion, which it said was represented by the “Universal House of Justice”, the Baha’i global governing council, based in Israel.
The charge sheet said Serostani, under instruction from the council, sought to set up a “national homeland for followers of the Baha’i faith” in Yemen by developing businesses and building housing there for its Arab and east Asian followers.
It said Serostani used a forged name and documents to stay in the country and promoted his religion through charitable work, including literacy lessons.
But his wife on Tuesday denied the charges and said the family had lived in Socotra since 1945, when Serostani’s father arrived on the Yemeni island from Iran as a doctor under British colonial rule and was granted Yemeni citizenship.
She said he was detained in 2013 and was held by state security for more than nine months.
“My husband was tortured to obtain incorrect confessions from him, and (they) asked him to work for the intelligence service and threatened to accuse him of contacts with Israel if he refused,” she told Reuters, adding she was worried about her family after the charges of trying to convert Yemeni Muslims.
Yemeni rights activist Samia al-Aghbari said the charges against Serostani were part of a policy of persecuting Yemeni Baha’is, who are believed to number in the dozens.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari, writing Sami Aboudi; Editing by Dominic Evans