Yemen has been devastated since March 2015 in a war between Houthi separatist rebels who took control of territory in the north, and eventually the capital of Sana’a, against government forces backed by a Saudi-led multinational coalition.

Yemen imposes substantial restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly and association and the freedom of religion or belief. Freedom of expression is severely limited in the north of the country as the de facto Houthi authorities surveil the society and armed groups intimidate people into self-censorship. Materials which “prejudices the Islamic faith”, call on people to apostasies, or criticize the head of state are outlawed.

The Constitution of the Republic of Yemen declares that Islam is the state religion and that Islamic law is the source of all legislation (Articles 1-3). The local interpretation of Islamic law serves as a basis for all law, although Islamic jurisprudence coexists with secular common law and civil code models in a hybrid legal system. Religious freedom is not specifically protected by the Constitution.

It is estimated that over 99% of the Yemeni population are Muslims. Religious minorities’ rights have reportedly been respected in the past. As the de facto authority in Sana’a and northern regions, the Houthi rebels have persecuted the Baha’i community and Christians in the controlled areas. The small Jewish community also face discrimination by the Houthis.

‘Blasphemy’ laws

The ‘blasphemy’ laws prohibit the “ridicule” of religion.

Article 194 of the Penal Code states:

“It is punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 3 years, or to fine” whoever:

“disseminates in public ideas containing ridicule or contempt of religion in its beliefs or rituals or teachings.”

Article 195 states that the punishment for this crime must be imprisonment for up to five years or a fine if Islam is the religion subject of “ridicule”.

Article 260 prescribes five years’ imprisonment or a fine to anyone who deliberately distorts the Qur’an in a way that changes its meaning with the intent to offend the true religion.

The act of ‘apostasy’ is punishable by death. Under Yemeni law, ‘apostasy’ is considered to be pronounced words or deeds that are inconsistent with the rules and principles of Islam intentionally or with insistence (Article 259). Those charged with ‘apostasy’ are given three chances to repent, and if they chose to do, they are absolved from the death penalty. “denouncing Islam” or any ‘blasphemy’ conviction may constitute evidence of ‘apostasy’.