WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, while presenting his department’s annual report on religious freedom, has described Aasia Bibi’s release as “good news” of the year.
Launching the report at the State Department on Friday afternoon, the top US diplomat mentioned two developments as 2018’s “good news,” Aasia’s release and the relaxation of religious persecution in Uzbekistan.
“In Pakistan, the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi, a Catholic, of blasphemy, sparing her the death penalty after she spent nearly a decade in prison,” he said.
“In Uzbekistan, much work still remains to be done, but for the first time in 13 years, it’s no longer designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” he said.
Uzbekistan recently freed 1,500 religious prisoners while 16,000 people, blacklisted for their religious affiliations, were allowed to travel. On Dec 11, the Trump administration placed Pakistan on the CPC list, saying that the designation was largely the result of criminal blasphemy laws in the country. Pakistan remains on the list.
On Friday, Secretary Pompeo also referred to blasphemy cases in Pakistan, noting that more than 40 people remained jailed for life, or faced execution on blasphemy charges.
“We continue to call for their release, and encourage the government to appoint an envoy to address the various religious freedom concerns,” he said.
Pakistan had previously been on a special watch list for religious freedom, known as tier 2. Downgrading to a CPC status invokes US sanctions but Secretary Pompeo waived those penalties in the US national interest.
Asia Bibi — whose release got a special mention in Mr Pompeo’s speech — was on death row since November 2010 after she was convicted on blasphemy charges.
In October 2018, a three-judge special bench, headed by former CJP Mian Saqib Nisar, acquitted her of all charges and in January this year, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal. Last month, Asia Bibi left Pakistan and reunited with her family in Canada.
Secretary Pompeo also criticised Iran and China, pointing to Beijing’s alleged detention of some one million Muslims, mostly from the Uighur ethnic minority group. He said that this year’s report had a special section on Uighur Muslims to “document the staggering scope of religious freedom abuses in Xinjiang”.
Turning to religious abuses in Burma, Secretary Pompeo noted that “Rohingya Muslims continue to face violence at the hands of the military. Hundreds of thousands have fled or been forced to live in overcrowded refugee camps”.
The report also highlights religious abuses in Saudi Arabia where, it claimed, at least 1,000 people had been detained mostly for non-violence offences such as participating in or promoting protests on social media.
Secretary Pompeo announced that the State Department would host the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington next month. Up to 1,000 delegates will attend this meeting.
Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2019