WASHINGTON: Days ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s July 21-24 visit to Washington, US Vice President Mike Pence urged Islamabad to free Junaid Hafeez, a university teacher arrested on blasphemy charges.
At a religious freedom summit in Washington on Thursday, Mr Pence highlighted the detention of religious dissidents in Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He also asked Saudi authorities to free Raif Badawi, a blogger jailed for 10 years in 2014 for allegedly insulting religious sentiments.
“In Pakistan, Professor Junaid Hafeez remains in solitary confinement on unsubstantiated charges of blasphemy,” Mr Pence said in his address to the summit meeting attended by hundreds of delegates from across the globe. “And in Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi is still in prison for the alleged crime of “criticising Islam through electronic means.”
Mr Pence said that “all four of these men have stood in defence of religious liberty, in the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure”.
Assuring the prisoners that the American people stand with them, the US vice president said: “Today, the United States of America calls upon the governments of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to respect the rights of conscience of these men, and let these men go.”
Mr Pence also criticised Myanmar, China, Iran and Venezuela for their alleged continued violation of human rights. “We’re also standing up for the persecuted Rohingya people in Burma,” he said. “We cannot ignore the rise of militant Buddhism against Muslim and Christian minorities that’s taken place.”
He noted that a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya people has forced more than 700,000 people to flee across the border to Bangladesh. “And though the United States has repeatedly urged the Burmese government to hold accountable all those responsible, the government has continued to imprison and harass innocent men and women,” he said.
Among the guests invited to the summit was young Rohingya woman who, when just 18, was thrown in jail for being the daughter of a political activist who dared to challenge the old military regime.
Earlier this week, the US State Department sanctioned Myanmar’s four top generals over Rohingya “gross human rights violations and ethnic cleansing”. Those sanctioned include the military’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, his deputy Soe Win, Brig Gen Than Oo and Brig Gen Aung Aung.