Sem Braunbek “You don’t want that blood on your hands” – U.S. asks Azerbaijan to release more prisoners

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http://www.turan.az-For the third time in less than two weeks, the U.S. religious freedom ambassador on Wednesday called for the release of prisoners of conscience around the world, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, TURAN’s Washington correspondent reports.

Speaking to reporters during a virtual briefing organized by the State Department’s Foreign Press Center, Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, emphasized that Azerbaijan has released 176 prisoners as a preventive health measure, adding, “but we call on them to immediately release all of those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms, including religious prisoners”.

When asked whether he anticipated the Azerbaijani government would release additional religious prisoners, of which the majority are MUM members who have already faced difficult conditions and torture, Brownback told TURAN’s Washington correspondent the followings:

“I applauded Azerbaijan for releasing a number of their prisoners and some of the political and religious prisoners that they released.  We are asking and I anticipate they will do more as we continue to point these cases out and the importance of doing this and the fact, too, that these governments don’t want these people to die in prison because of the COVID virus when they’re there for religious or political purposes. You don’t want that blood on your hands, and that’s why we continue to ask them to do that.”

The call for the release of non-violent prisoners of conscience is not unusual in these pretty uncertain times. Brownback’s comments underscored that religious prisoners in countries afflicted by the pandemic are at a high risk of contracting the infectious disease and being left to die by the governments oppressing them.

In the meantime, he added, “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…”

“They shouldn’t be there in the first place, but also and on top of that, in light of this crisis, this is a key time that they should allow these people out who shouldn’t be in prison in the first place, and shouldn’t be then subjected to this worse environment for the spread of the virus within a crowded prison, unsanitary situation,” he added.

“It’s our hope that a number of countries will look at this and say, this is something we don’t want to expose these people to, that we want to let them out.  It is good for our own country’s public health, and that we’ll see more of these religious prisoners being released in the coming days,” he said.

Currently there are estimated to be over 130 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, according to nongovernmental organizations, and more than half of them are religious activists.

Asked why a trust was needed between religious groups and their governments in times like this, Brownback’s response is “in some places, a number of the religious groups have been very supportive of the social distancing effort and not holding services like Easter services for the first time ever in the history of some of these institutions. They’re doing that to help out with the containment and to push back against the spread of this terrible, terrible virus.”

Alex Raufoglu

Washington D.C.

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