APPG Statement on COVID-19 and Prisoners of Conscience

As efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 continue, the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief calls on Governments to fight the spread of the disease and to honour human rights by releasing all those who are imprisoned for their religion or beliefs.

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.

Indeed, some countries specifically criminalise beliefs through legislation. In Saudi Arabia, for example, atheism is illegal and punishable by death. 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 named above are far from the only Government guilty of imprisoning individuals for their peacefully held beliefs.

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.

Given that prisons in these countries are generally overcrowded and unhygienic, with prisoners having limited access to appropriate healthcare and very little capacity to self-isolate, detainees are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Therefore, the APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief urges Governments to 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.