Prisoners of Conscience Imperiled by COVID-19, US Ambassador Says

April 20, 2020 Updated: April 20, 2020

Prison and jail populations around the world are among those at the highest risk of infection by the CCP virus, and none are more unjustly at risk than political prisoners and those detained for their religious beliefs.

Living, working, and dining in necessarily close and often cramped quarters, those who are imprisoned have little protection from the virus in the event of exposure.

Ambassador Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, addressed that subject on April 15 by calling on countries around the world to release prisoners held for their religious beliefs and practices.

“The key point here I’d like to make is that we are seeing some countries release religious prisoners because of the COVID-19 crisis, because of the public health concern, because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s the right thing for their country not to keep people, religious prisoners, in prison in the first place,” Brownback said at a briefing at the State Department.

Such prisoners shouldn’t be “subjected to … the spread of the virus within a crowded prison, [an] unsanitary situation,” he added.

While some countries have indeed released prisoners, along with those who have been jailed for their religious beliefs, China isn’t among them.

Asked if he had reached out specifically to Chinese officials to try to get Uyghurs in Xinjiang released due to the COVID crisis, Brownback said that he had “reached out through the press. I have not reached out directly to individuals.”

China also continues to imprison a number of Tibetan Buddhists, house church Christians, and Falun Gong members that have been arbitrarily detained, he said.

Brownback isn’t new to such battles; while serving as a U.S. senator from Kansas, Brownback worked on behalf of freedom of religion with countries around the world. He was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the ambassadorship that he now holds.

Countries including “Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland, Syria, and Tunisia all have some prisoner release programs taking place, and in a number of these cases having some religious prisoners that are being released amongst the entire group that’s being released,” Brownback said.

Other nations, however, haven’t stepped up.

“We call on governments, including those in China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Yemen, and others alike, to release those individuals who are in detention for their religious beliefs and practices, and who remain there,” Brownback said.

But Brownback, who heads the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), also highlighted a dilemma between the panel’s mandate and the realities presented by the pandemic.

“All the countries of the world are trying to cooperate to the degree they can to deal with this threat facing all of humanity on the planet. … At the same time, we’re asking that these nations really step up and address this situation … of religious prisoners in their own nation,” he said.

China’s Religious Freedoms Worsen

China is designated by the USCIRF as a Tier 1 country of particular concern, the highest level of criticism and condemnation that the commission can issue on the condition of religious freedoms in any country.

The Tier 1 designation is defined by USCIRF as befitting a country that commits “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Despite decades of engagement and investment by companies from around the world, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese students receiving high school and university educations in the United States and other Western countries, China’s religious rights record is worsening, and regulations are becoming more stringent.

On Feb. 1, a new set of “administrative measures” governing religious groups came into force in China.

These regulations not only further codify and strengthen the Beijing regime’s already authoritarian supervision and control over religious practices, they officially require religious groups to publicize, teach—and accept—the principles of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The new regulations also require religious organizations to “provide interpretations for doctrines and canons that meet the requirements of the development and progress of modern China, and in accordance with the glorious traditional Chinese culture.”

Targeting Sanctions

The designation of a country as Tier 1 violator of religious freedoms is supposed to have, by law, consequences.  The law requires the president “to take one of several actions, including economic sanctions.”

However, too often those consequences have already been put into effect under a process called “double-hatting,” a December 2019 report by The Heritage Foundation points out.

Double-hatting adds abuses of religious freedoms to sanctions that are already in place on a country for other reasons, such as arms embargoes, trade, and aid. In other words, no extra price is paid by offending nations, making the designation as an offender little more than an annoyance and potential embarrassment.

Heritage suggests a fix. “Sanctions should be targeted—not broad-based or trade-based—and should focus on holding specific individuals and entities accountable, perhaps through application of Global Magnitsky sanctions,” its report says.

The Global Magnitsky Act allows for visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals who are responsible for human rights violations or acts of significant corruption. The first use of the act in response to violations of religious rights occurred in January 2018, when the State Department, along with the Treasury, sanctioned a Burmese general for gross human rights violations that caused more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee their native country.