World Tour Reporting from around the globe

Setting captives free from COVID-19

International | Pandemic prompts the release of international prisoners of conscience
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 4/24/20, 05:25 pm

Mask-clad family members stood outside the red gate of a prison in Myanmar’s northern Shan state on Friday welcoming freed prisoners. Myanmar, also known as Burma, released 24,896 inmates as part of its annual pardon for the Buddhist New Year. This year, the ongoing pandemic added new importance to the tradition.

Around the world, countries are releasing inmates to decongest their prisons, fearing the coronavirus could spread rapidly inside overcrowded holding centers. The United States is working to ensure the growing trend includes prisoners of conscience.

Myanmar President Win Myint pardoned mostly prisoners convicted of drug charges. His order freed only 20 political detainees and 87 foreigners awaiting deportation.

Human Rights Watch noted several religious and political prisoners, including prominent Rakhine state politician Aye Maung and writer Wai Hin Aung, remain incarcerated.

“It’s appalling that prisoners of conscience and peaceful activists were largely excluded,” said Clare Algar with Amnesty International. “They should not be in prison in the first place and are victims of repression, harassment, and arbitrary arrests by the Myanmar authorities, both the civilian-led government and the military.”

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners of Burma also appealed for freedom for the prisoners of conscience and hundreds of others awaiting or undergoing trials.

Overcrowding, close proximity, and the inability to maintain strict hygiene make prisons a high-risk environment for contagious diseases like COVID-19. Prisons in more than 124 countries already exceed maximum occupancy, according to Penal Reform International. With nearly 11 million people detained or incarcerated around the world, prison reform advocates urged countries to consider emergency releases of nonviolent offenders and older, at-risk individuals.

Myanmar was one of several countries in Southeast Asia speeding up prisoner releases to help blunt the effects of the coronavirus. Even before the New Year’s amnesty, Myanmar dropped charges of illegal travel against 200 Rohingya Muslims. Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Kenya, Turkey, the United States are among other nations that have either released or furloughed some inmates.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told reporters last week that the pandemic has brought freedom to some people imprisoned for their religion. They include Ramiel Bet Tamraz, a 35-year-old Assyrian Christian who was serving a four-month sentence in Iran’s Evin Prison for his participation in house churches.

“We often work for years to get one free,” Brownback said. “And in this midst of this pandemic, we’re seeing a number get released.”

But the United States and groups like the United Nations are calling for more. Brownback said multilateral pressure from countries in the U.S.-led International Religious Freedom Alliance could help persuade some reluctant nations.

The Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in so-called reeducation camps, in addition to persecuting Christians and members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. In Iran, Shia Muslim hard-liners persecute Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims, and Baha’i followers, while officials in Pakistan use blasphemy laws to justify arrests, imprisonment, and mob violence against religious minorities.

“We’re calling on those nations that still have prisoners of conscience to release those at this time,” Brownback said, “and furthermore, making the point that you shouldn’t want any of these prisoners of conscience to die of COVID virus in prison and have responsibility on your hands for not having done the right thing.”

Associated Press/Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko (file) Associated Press/Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko (file) A Russian SU-35 fighter jet

U.S. and Russia tangle in the skies

Russian fighter jets threatened U.S. aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea, the U.S. Navy reported on Sunday.

In the first incident, a Russian SU-35 fighter accosted a U.S. P-8A Poseidon plane twice in less than two hours. The second interception brought the fighter jet within 25 feet of the P-8A, “exposing the U.S. aircraft to wake turbulence and jet exhaust,” according to the Navy.

Russia claimed its aircraft departed from a Syrian airbase to identify a target approaching its military facilities there. “The pilot of the Russian fighter after approach identified the tail number of the aircraft belonging to the U.S. Navy, and took it for escort,” Russian officials said, adding its SU-35 returned to its base after the Navy plane changed course.

In a similar incident over the same waters on April 15, a Russian SU-35 flew within 25 feet of a U.S. P-8A, the Navy reported, adding, “In both cases, the U.S. aircraft were operating consistent with international law and did not provoke this Russian activity.” —Onize Ohikere

Associated Press/Photo by Vincent Yu Associated Press/Photo by Vincent Yu Police arrest Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai (center) at his home on Saturday.

Activists detained

Security officials in Hong Kong arrested 15 high-profile democracy activists on Saturday on charges of illegal assembly. The detainees include media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded the local newspaper Apple Daily, and 81-year-old activist and former lawmaker Martin Lee.

The arrests stem from massive anti-government protests last year that crippled parts of Hong Kong. The protests began in June in opposition to a bill that would have made it easier to extradite criminal suspects from the semi-autonomous territory to China. It quickly grew into a social movement urging greater democracy and denouncing Beijing-backed government leaders in the city.

Hours before the arrests, China’s liaison office said its officials are “authorized by the central authorities to handle Hong Kong affairs,” despite the territory’s semi-autonomous status. —O.O.

Sending signals of hope

In the era of the coronavirus, missionary groups are adapting by providing helpful information about the resulting disease in addition to offering hope in Jesus Christ.

Trans World Radio created special content on COVID-19 and focused additional programming on how to find spiritual comfort. The group broadcasts programs in multiple African languages, Arabic, English, Italian, Mandarin, and Spanish and recently added new programming to reach devastated, war-torn Yemen.

The deaf outreach group Door International also shifted focus to help contain the coronavirus. “Teams typically involved in Bible translation are translating information that they’re receiving about COVID-19,” Door President and CEO Rob Myers said.

International missions groups like Christian Missionary Fellowship are also doing more relief work to help during the crisis. —J.A.S.

Iranian Christian convert receives suspended sentence

An Iranian court last week sentenced 21-year-old Mary Fatemeh Mohammadi to three months and a day in prison and 10 lashes for her involvement in anti-government protests in January. She joined protesters who crowded Tehran’s Azadi Square after the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed 167 people. The court suspended her sentence for a year.

Mohammadi said authorities held her for 46 days in Qarchak Prison, where they beat her repeatedly and forced her to sit for hours out in the cold. She has previously faced arrest for involvement in a house church.

“Even before the verdict was handed down, I was forced to endure all kinds of torture, none of which is sanctioned by law and which ought to be considered crimes in themselves,” she said. —O.O.

Burkina Faso targets civilians

Burkinabe security forces executed 31 unarmed men hours after detaining them during a crackdown on terrorism in the West African nation earlier this month, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

On April 9, witnesses said they found the bodies of the men from the Fulani ethnic group sprayed with bullets in the northern town of Djibo. Since 2016, Burkina Faso has tried to quash armed Islamist groups that have recruited fighters from the nomadic Fulani community.

The country’s defense ministry released a statement saying it had already called for an investigation into similar allegations against the military on April 10. —O.O.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia is a correspondent for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019. Julia resides in Denver, Colo. Follow her on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

Read more from this writer


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
    Posted: Sat, 04/25/2020 03:56 pm

    I think Trump tried to be friends with Putin, but Pelosi made sure he couldn't. Yet Obama and Hillary? No problem.