Yemen in Focus: Houthi rebels slammed for imposing 'discriminatory' religious tax

Yemen in Focus: Houthi rebels slammed for imposing 'discriminatory' religious tax
This week we focus on the Houthis' new 'Khums' tax, rumoured 'mercy injections' and more.
8 min read
11 June, 2020
The Houthis have controlled the capital since 2014. [AFP]
Yemen's Houthis have instated a new law to pay mandatory religious tax to "the ruling family", the rebel-run ministry of legal affairs announced in a document this week.

The controversial move imposes a 20 percent 'Khums' tax on "all economic activity involving natural resources such as the oil, gas and fishing industries", local Almasdar Online reported.

The rebels have expanded the 1999 Zakat (charity) law which is designed to provide funds for those in need, including orphans, according to Islamic law.

The new Khums law derives from a popular Shia theological ruling that requires Muslims to pay a fifth (or 20 percent) of their profits towards the path of God, including to leading religious figures and scholars.

Theologically, the law is based on a verse from the Quran which stipulates: "Know that whatever of a thing you acquire, a fifth of it is for Allah, for the Messenger, for the near relative, and the orphans and the needy and they way farer." (Qur'an 8:41)

But concerns have been raised that it will only benefit "the ruling Hashemite family" or the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, which in Yemen's case refers mainly to the Houthi rebels or their most senior religious followers.

Yemen's Houthis have instated a new law to pay mandatory religious tax to 'the ruling family'

"The Houthi militia has modified the Zakat law legalising Khums in regions under their control. #Khums means the Houthis have the right to acquire 20% of every national resource and individual's profit or income. In other words, it is a racist tax system or rather racketeering," journalist Fuad Rajeh said on Twitter.

While many lamented what was described as a "racist" or "tribalist" system, others took to social media to ridicule the rebels for the law.

Images that surfaced online showed a range of 20 percent portion donations from Yemenis responding to the law, including cigarettes, socks, spoons of honey and Qat sticks.

Yemen's Houthi rebels led an insurgency against the internationally-recognised government in September 2014 and overran the country's north. The move prompted a deadly Saudi-led coalition intervention in the country in March 2015, leading to more than 100,000 killed.

But the war-torn country has in recent weeks faced other battles on the frontlines, including the novel coronavirus that has struck much of the globe.

'Mercy injections'

The Covid-19 pandemic has added to the deadly toll of the war in Yemen, crippling a health system already in shambles with little capacity to test those suspected of having the virus. The country has no more than 500 ventilators and 700 ICU beds nationwide, as well as just one oxygen cylinder per month for every 2.5 million people.

However, the situation has exacerbated in the Houthi-controlled north, where rumours have spread accusing the rebels of using "mercy injections" against suspected Covid-19 patients.

Health organisations have also accused the rebels of suppressing information about the virus, severely punishing those who speak out, enforcing little mitigation measures, and promoting conspiracies and claims by the Houthi minister of health that their scientists are working on developing a cure for Covid-19 to present to the world.

Read also: Indepth: Yemen Aid: The NGO battling coronavirus in a war zone

Officially, the rebels say that only four cases of coronavirus have been detected in the regions they control but have resisted making the number of positive cases and deaths public.

"We don't publish the numbers to the society because such publicity has a heavy and terrifying toll on people's psychological health," said Youssef al-Hadhari, spokesman for the Houthi health ministry, in response to questions by The Associated Press.

The controversial move imposes a 20 percent 'Khums' tax on all economic activity involving natural resources such as the oil, gas and fishing industries

His comments come two months after Houthi Minister of Health Taha al-Motawakel painted a bleak picture of the country's readiness to deal with the virus, saying that at some point Houthi officials will have to deal with 1 million people in need of hospital admissions in a two-month period.

He told a parliament session that at one point, doctors will have to choose between whom to rescue and whom to let die. This is "battlefield medicine," he said.

The World Health Organization believes that there is a significant undercount of total number of people affected by the coronavirus outbreak, which officials say could further hinder efforts to get the medical supplies needed to contain the virus.

Richard Brennan, the WHO's regional emergency director, told the AP that he believes the Covid-19 deaths are in the hundreds and cases are in the thousands, based on what he has heard from numerous health providers in Yemen.

Local health officials, aid workers, residents, and community activists who all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the pandemic, say the situation in the war-torn country is worsening fast. Local unions, who have kept their own death tallies from the coronavirus, report that 46 medical staffers, 28 judges, and 13 lawyers died in a three-week period between mid-May and early June, well above the Houthis' official count.

The lack of information about the true number of people infected by the coronavirus in Houthi-controlled areas has led to wild speculation about the nature of the disease and the rebel's response to dealing with the infections and deaths has only added to the confusion.

One widely circulated rumour suggested Houthi rebels have instructed doctors to kill suspected Covid-19 patients with a "mercy injection".

The rumour, which was given credibility because of a supposedly confidential document allegedly signed by the health minister, gained so much traction that Houthi leaders took the unusual step of issuing an official denial, calling the rumour "lies aimed at spreading fear". The Houthis themselves have also spread rumours that the virus was spread by outsiders.

The Covid-19 pandemic has added to the deadly toll of the war in Yemen, crippling a health system already in shambles

Some hospitals, like the Jibla hospital in the northern province of Ibb, one of the worst hit areas, have been called "injection hospitals" because of the high number of deaths happening there, residents and local activists said.

These rumours have caused widespread panic, and residents say they are less likely to notify health officials about suspected cases of Covid-19.

"People don't go to hospitals for fear of the mercy injection," said a local activist, referring to the Jibla hospital. "We can't tell the truth from the fallacy, but I know many people who died in mysterious ways inside this hospital."

A lawmaker in Sanaa told the AP that people are afraid to report coronavirus cases, fearing retaliation from Houthi officials.

"The suspected cases are treated like war criminals," he said.

The lawmaker and a local activist from Ibb province said that the Houthis have gone through great lengths to contain information about the spread of Covid-19 in the rebel-controlled region.

But despite the ongoing misery in the now infected war-torn country, a doctor this week has made international headlines for his "nobility" amid the ongoing crisis.

Sami Yahya al-Hajj has been driving around the streets of Yemen offering diagnoses and prescriptions to the poor straight from his four-wheel car.

"Stop me if you need a medical consultation," reads a large sticker on the rear window of al-Hajj's car, alongside a cartoon figure of the bearded doctor wearing his square spectacles.

Hajj said he started giving free consultations via social media but then wanted to reach to those without access to such technology.

"I thought about the poor and those in need on the streets who cannot get medical advice or don't have the money for it," he told AFP. 

Yemen is facing what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis and many Yemenis are afflicted by malnutrition and disease. The country's healthcare system has all but collapsed, leaving it extremely vulnerable to the spread of the Covid-19 respiratory disease.

In the rebel-held capital of Sanaa, Hajj is flagged down by a man driving alongside his car.

"My wife for the past week or two..." calls out the man, before Hajj asks him to pull over.  

After a roadside consultation, Hajj prescribes a course of vitamins.

"We doctors are on the frontlines of this current pandemic, and we must disseminate advice even outside medical facilities," said Hajj, who has nearly 18,000 followers on Facebook.

"We must safeguard and maintain the health of the poor, because their health is part of the whole community," he said. 

"Here is a Yemeni doctor treating the poor for free on the streets," said one of Hajj's supporters in a Facebook post hailing his "noble and beautiful" contribution.

"I wish all Yemeni doctors would do the same in the current situation we are in."

Meanwhile, the United Nations warned last week that its programs to fight the coronavirus in war-torn Yemen might have to stop by the end the month unless they get an immediate injection of cash.

The warning came a day after a UN appeal for countries to fund emergency aid in the Arab world's poorest nation fell a billion dollars short of what aid agencies needed - $2.41 billion - to cover essential activities from June to December.

"This will severely handicap efforts to contain the outbreak, which is already spreading rapidly," said Hayat Abu Saleh, a spokesperson for the UN Officer for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino