Peter Khalil: I also rise to speak in support of the motion moved by the member for Canberra. As we’ve heard, and as we all know and the people here know, since 1979 the government of Iran has made it official policy to discriminate against and persecute members of the Baha’i community, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. It was back in 2016 that the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Baha’is as the most severely persecuted religious minority in Iran. Baha’is are not recognised in the Iranian constitution, they are subjected to strict limits on the right to assemble and worship and Baha’i properties and holy places have been confiscated and destroyed.
Government led attacks on Baha’is have reintensified since 2005. That is why the Australian parliament, in 2012, 2015 and again today with this motion, have condemned the persecution and treatment of Baha’is in Iran, which has been noted by all the speakers on this motion. I also note that the member for Curtin, the former foreign minister Julie Bishop, repeatedly called for the release of all seven members of the community’s ad hoc national leadership group who were arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 10-year prison terms on spurious charges of disturbing national security, spreading propaganda against the regime and engaging in espionage. Six of the seven have completed their prison terms and been released. The seventh, Afif Naeimi, continues to be incarcerated despite suffering persistent and severe health problems. Despite this persecution, the Baha’i community in Iran poses no threat to the government or the regime. Baha’is are not aligned with any political ideology or opposition movement, and nor do they engage in subversive activity or violence. They only ask simply for protection under the International Bill of Human Rights, to which Iran is a party.
Worryingly, this persecution has now spread to other countries like Yemen, where the situation is also very grave, although involving a much smaller population. In recent years, the Baha’i community there has experienced escalating persecution, particularly in the Houthi controlled northern portion of Yemen. There are currently six Baha’is in prison in Sana’a. The longest serving prisoner is Mr Hamid Kamal bin Haydara. He has been imprisoned by the authorities in Sana’a since December 2013 and has suffered severe mistreatment, including electrocution and being forced to sign documents while blindfolded. On 2 January 2018 the Specialised Criminal Court in Sana’a sentenced him to death due to his religious beliefs. Furthermore, the judge called for the dissolution of all Baha’i assemblies, thereby placing other Baha’i prisoners, as well as the Baha’i community as a whole, in further danger.
It’s important to note that these developments taking place in Yemen are not being necessarily perpetrated directly by the government of Yemen. This is recognised internationally, including by Australia, as an important distinction. The Houthis have been in that part of Yemen strongly supported and influenced by Iran during the civil war. It must be said that there have been atrocious human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict. However, with respect specifically to the minority Baha’i community, Iran has been directing the persecution in a continuation of its longstanding persecution of the Baha’i minority in its own country. Multiple independent sources have confirmed that Iranian authorities are directing efforts to persecute the Baha’i in Yemen. The various forms of persecution experienced by Yemeni Baha’is bear a striking resemblance to what they have experienced in their own country, such as these spurious accusations used when they are arrested—that they are somehow a threat to national security.
The findings have been corroborated by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr Ahmed Shaheed. He said in a statement dated 22 May 2017:
The recent escalation in the persistent pattern of persecution of the Baha’i community in Sana’a mirrors the persecution suffered by the Baha’is living in Iran.
This means there are several hundred thousand people in Iran and Yemen who are in danger based solely on their religious beliefs. The Baha’i community in Iran numbers around 300,000. Although accurate statistics are not available, it’s estimated there are now a few thousand Yemeni Baha’i. The Baha’i in Yemen are loyal citizens to their country, representing its rich and diverse culture.
Despite living through a turbulent period of civil conflict in Yemen, the Baha’i have refused to side with any particular group in this conflict and endeavour to serve all people, placing particular emphasis on youth, who are eager to dedicate their energies to the regeneration of their society through service to all. I have met many Baha’i in my own community in my electorate of Wills, and I can speak to the tremendous contributions they make to our local community. I support this motion because the important right of freedom of religion and belief is often breached by those regimes that are based on one religion—usually theocracies—and we must stand up together and be a voice for all the Baha’i who are persecuted around the world.