The Hill -- Congress can defend freedoms abroad

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January 27, 2014 | By  Robert P. George   

The following op-ed appeared in  The Hill  on January 27, 2014.

I testified before the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC)’s hearing on the Defending Freedoms Project on January 16.  The TLHRC, co-chaired by Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), launched this initiative to spotlight the dire plight of prisoners of conscience abroad.  The Hill highlighted the project in a January 18 article,  Lawmakers ‘adopt’ prisoners in human rights push .

Through the project, members of Congress select individual prisoners to draw attention to their cases and the repressive laws and policies of the governments holding them in order to call these governments to account and ultimately help set these prisoners free. While quiet diplomacy has a key role to play, public inattention can lead to more persecution, not more freedom and, at its worst, private diplomacy can be viewed as a license to oppress.

These prisoners of conscience have been unjustly barred from enjoying the most basic human rights enshrined in the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and other international instruments and standards.

Among these precious rights is freedom of religion or belief.  As it often is the first right taken away, religious freedom serves as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, warning us that denial of other liberties almost surely will follow.

The United States signaled its intent to strengthen its championing of religious freedom overseas by enacting the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which created USCIRF as well as an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State, and the “country-of-particular-concern” status for the world’s worst abusers of this fundamental liberty.

IRFA also mandated that the State Department compile a list of prisoners.  While the Department has advocated for individual prisoners, we are unaware that it ever created a comprehensive prisoner list.  We urge the Department to do so now.

The hearing highlighted several prisoners included on an ever-changing list the project has compiled:

Nabeel Rajab, whom McGovern has adopted, remains jailed along with fellow prisoners of conscience by the Bahraini government, which responded in 2011 to citizen protests against abuses, including those against the Shi’a Muslim community, with a crackdown leading to a human rights crisis.

Gao Zhisheng, whom Wolf has adopted, is a lawyer whom the government of China has disbarred, tortured, and imprisoned for his defense of activists and religious minorities.   China commits widespread human rights violations, detaining hundreds of thousands without charges or trials.  Religious freedom conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims remain especially poor.

Pastor Saeed Abedini, whom Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Raul Labrador (R-Ida.) have adopted, is a U.S. citizen who has been serving an eight-year prison sentence since January 2012 for participating in Iran’s house church movement.  Iran arbitrarily and unlawfully arrests, imprisons, tortures and kills those who it deems a threat to its reigning theology.

Aasia Bibi, whom Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) has adopted, is one of 40 individuals the Pakistani government has jailed for blasphemy.  Along with perpetrating and tolerating severe violations of freedom of religion or belief, the government enforces notorious blasphemy laws and other religiously discriminatory legislation, such as anti-Ahmadi laws, which have created an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism, including extrajudicial and targeted killings and forced disappearances.

Sultan Hamid Marzooq al-Enezi and Saud Falih Awad al-Enezi have been imprisoned since May 2012 by the government of Saudi Arabia for the capital crime of apostasy for joining the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.  The Kingdom continues to ban nearly all public religious expression other than that of the government’s own interpretation of Sunni Islam, bans all non-Muslim places of public worship, sporadically detains Shi’a Muslims, and prosecutes, convicts, and imprisons individuals charged with apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery.

Do Thi Minh Hanh, whom Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has adopted, is an imprisoned Vietnamese labor activist who is serving a seven-year sentence for organizing workers at a shoe factory.  Father Ly, whom Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has adopted, has spent more than 15 years in prison in Vietnam for advocating democracy and human rights including religious freedom.  The government of Vietnam commits significant human rights violations including severely limiting the freedoms of speech, press, and association, arbitrarily arresting and detaining people and mistreating them during arrest and detention, and denying them the right to a fair and expeditious trial.

There are countless other prisoners of conscience, named and unnamed, languishing in jail cells in these and other nations.  Given the upcoming Sochi Olympic Games, we would be remiss by not mentioning Russia.  While Moscow recently released some prisoners of conscience, it did so only because President Putin, not an independent judiciary, so decreed, thereby signaling not a change in Russia’s human rights policies, which have deteriorated dramatically under Putin, but a quest for positive publicity prior to the games.

Unfortunately, the world has no shortage of prisoners of conscience.  We at USCIRF commend those members of Congress who have adopted prisoners, and urge others to join this campaign.

George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at 202-786-0613 or media@uscirf.gov .