Raif Badawi co-founded the website Free Saudi Liberals in 2008 to encourage debate on religious and political issues in Saudi Arabia despite the country’s restricted civic space. In 2012 the Saudi government arrested him on charges of promoting religious freedom. Badawi received a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, and has been banned from doing media work for a decade upon his release in 2022 — if he is released.
Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen who is a carpenter, lives in Russia. He has appeared in Russian courts 50 times and last month was sentenced to six years in prison. His crime? He is a Jehovah’s Witness, which the Russian government calls extremist.
Youcef Nadarkhani pastored a 400-member house church in Iran. He was born to Muslim parents but did not adhere to any belief until he converted to Christianity at age 19. Since 2006 he has been arrested, imprisoned, and released multiple times for apostasy and for evangelizing to Muslims and acting against national security. In 2010, Youcef was sentenced to death by hanging, but after two years and considerable international outcry, he was acquitted and released. Today, Youcef again sits in Tehran’s Evin Prison, accused of apostasy and facing a 10-year sentence.
Religious prisoners of conscience . . . unjustly imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their consciously held beliefs
Hu Shigen is an underground church leader and religious freedom advocate in China. In 2015, authorities detained Shigen and charged him with subverting state power. He was tried and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Shigen is no stranger to prison, having served a 16-year term for helping publicize the Chinese government’s assault on student protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Shigen’s health has deteriorated since his most recent imprisonment, but his family’s appeal for early release has been denied.
These are just four of the 12 religious prisoners of conscience whose cases have been selected for diligent advocacy efforts by members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). All were unjustly imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their consciously held beliefs. None have used or advocated violence.
Elizabeth Cassidy, USCIRF’s Director of International Law and Policy, says, “The USCIRF Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project highlights illustrative cases of people around the world who have been unjustly imprisoned for the peaceful practice of their beliefs. By adopting these prisoners, we hope to put a human face on a much larger statistical tragedy and to remind these individuals that they are not forgotten and that we are working to secure their freedom.”
No one knows how many people around the world can be categorized as prisoners of conscience, but the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission has been working on behalf of prisoners of conscience since 2012 through its Defending Freedoms Project.
Many governments imprison, torture, and sometimes execute people because of their views, who they are, what they believe, or how they express their convictions. Artists, bloggers, community activists, dissidents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, labor leaders, teachers, religious leaders, and members of religious communities are among the prisoners of conscience found around the world today. They routinely say that worse than incarceration is being forgotten.
Your advocacy can help ensure that they are not forgotten.
- Encourage your congressman or congresswoman to pass H.Res.750 expressing support for the designation of a “Prisoners of Conscience Day”
- Learn more about USCIRF’s Religious Prisoner of Conscience program
- Encourage the State Department to create a comprehensive list of religious prisoners
Dennis Christensen sentenced to six years in prison in Russia [Photo Credit: Andrey Sazonov, February 2019]