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The campaign for prisoners of conscience: A call to action

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Every day, millions of Americans enjoy freedoms that are under attack in countries around the world. As we see more journalists and activists imprisoned and tortured, religious minorities persecuted and political dissidents suppressed every year, now is the moment for the United States to stand up for these human rights and democratic principles when they are threatened abroad.

As the co-chairs of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) in the United States Congress, we stand in solidarity with those around the world unjustly incarcerated and oppressed for the peaceful exercise of their human rights.

{mosads}Our bipartisan commission created the Defending Freedoms Project in 2012 in partnership with civil society organizations to support prisoners of conscience and hold oppressive governments accountable. The project allows members of Congress to select and advocate for these human rights defenders by raising awareness to support the growing calls for justice.

These prisoners of conscience include human rights defenders around the world. Zhu Yufu is a Chinese democracy advocate who founded the unrecognized Democratic Party of China and is still under house arrest after serving a seven-year sentence for publishing a poem urging people’s participation in the 2011 pro-democracy protests. Raif Badawi, founder and editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website which encourages religious and political debate, is serving a 10-year sentence for criticizing Islam, and has received 50 of the 1,000 lashes included in his sentence. The Panchen Lama, who holds the second highest position in Tibetan Buddhism, was disappeared by the Chinese government more than two decades ago. Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, has been imprisoned numerous times, most recently in June 2016. The list goes on and on.

In 2018, it should be unheard of that so many innocent people are imprisoned for who they are, what they believe and the freedoms they fight for. But as long as dictators and autocrats reign, we must continue to speak out. We must continue to hold them accountable and increase pressure to advance the democratic reforms needed to end this oppression and protect the human rights of all people.

The United States cannot ignore these injustices, nor let these human rights defenders fight alone.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” History shows that such repressive governments ultimately fail to silence these human rights defenders and instead only magnify their voices. We seek to add our voices to theirs. We must not be silent, apathetic or distracted. No one should ever live in fear of government retaliation or violence for exercising basic human rights. These oppressive governments must be held accountable.

Protecting global human rights is both the right thing and smart thing to do. Left unchecked, oppressive governments can lead to social and political instability, violent conflicts and destabilized regions that directly threaten U.S. interests and our national security.

Change is never easy. Champions are needed to stand alongside these human rights heroes. So today we are calling on all members of Congress to join the Defending Freedoms Project and add their voice by raising awareness about these prisoners of conscience.

Together, we must call for these innocent prisoners’ release, and ask to meet with them, their families and their lawyers. We urge the passage of H.Res. 750, which expresses congressional support for designating a “Prisoner of Conscience Day” to underscore that protection for, and freedom of, these prisoners is a United States foreign policy priority.

Money talks, and American companies can do their part by refusing to do business with any country guilty of human rights abuses.

Every voice matters. Colleges and universities can take up the cases of imprisoned scholars. Churches, mosques and synagogues can advocate for imprisoned religious leaders. And nonprofits can work in support of detained civil society leaders and journalists around the world.

During our Feb. 15, 2018 congressional hearing, Defending Prisoners of Conscience, we heard inspiring testimony that our advocacy is making a difference, helping many to hold onto hope. Some prisoners have had their sentences reduced and their prison conditions improved, and others have even been released. But we also heard about journalists and human rights defenders who have been imprisoned for shining a light on these cases. They need to know they do not stand alone.

America has a responsibility to stand up for human rights and stand with prisoners of conscience around the world. We welcome all to join us in raising our voices for their freedom.

Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and James McGovern (D-Mass.) are Co-Chairs of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which is charged with promoting, defending and advocating for international human rights in Congress. 

Tags Human rights James McGovern Randy Hultgren Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

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