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UK News

Parliamentarians urge governments to fight coronavirus in prisons by releasing prisoners of conscience

by Tola Mbakwe

As efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19 continue, the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief has called on governments around the world to fight the spread of the disease in prisons. 

It has urged them to honour human rights by releasing all those who are imprisoned for their religion or beliefs.

The group said in a statement: "Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion'.

"Yet, around the world, the governments of countries who are signatories of the ICCPR and other relevant human rights instruments continue to imprison countless individuals for nothing more than their peacefully held beliefs."

The cross-party group named Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China as countries of concern. 

"Some countries specifically criminalise beliefs through legislation. In Saudi Arabia, for example, atheism is illegal and punishable by death," it said. 

"Similarly, in Pakistan, many members of minority faiths or beliefs such Christians, Humanists and Ahmadis are persecuted and imprisoned under draconian blasphemy laws with many facing the death penalty.

"Many other countries imprison vast numbers of people for their beliefs. The Chinese Government is particularly guilty of this, having arbitrarily imprisoned upwards a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps.

"This enormous number doesn't even include the harsh treatment and imprisonment of countless Chinese Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and practitioners of Falun Gong.

"The Governments of Iran, Russia, Vietnam, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Eritrea and many more continue to imprison people in violation of Article 18 and people from all manner of faiths and beliefs have found themselves imprisoned unjustly, including Sikhs who suffered a vicious terrorist attack which killed 25 people last month on March 25, 2020."

The group claimed that prisons in these countries are generally overcrowded and unhygienic, with prisoners having limited access to appropriate healthcare and little capacity to self-isolate. Because of this, it said detainees are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

The APPG said governments must "fulfil their obligations to protect the health and human rights of their citizens by releasing all those who are imprisoned on the grounds of their religion or belief."

In March an Iranian Christian woman who was imprisoned after converting from Islam was released from prison due the coronavirus outbreak. 
Fatemeh Bakhteri was arrested in a raid on a house church meeting at her home in Rasht, northern Iran, in May 2017.

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