On International Human Rights Day, advocates drew attention to prisoners of conscience around the world who are being detained for their beliefs. “The Defending Freedoms Project is about people who have been detained for who they are, what they believe, and how they have chosen to express their convictions,” said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “We must shine a light on them and the governments of the countries that have imprisoned them, not just on International Human Rights Day, but every day,” she said in a press release. Observed each year on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day commemorates the day in 1948 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has partnered with other groups — the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International USA — on the Defending Freedoms Project, where members of Congress sponsor a “prisoner of conscience” overseas and then draw attention to their plight and push for their release. More than 90 prisoners are currently on the complete prisoner list for the Defending Freedoms Project, with detainees in China, Pakistan, Iran, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan, among other countries. Detainees include journalists, bloggers, activists, opposition leaders, artists, and religious leaders. Twenty-seven of the prisoners are currently being sponsored by members of Congress, including the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, who is currently on death row for a blasphemy charge, and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who has been detained in Iran for two years for his pastoral work there. “Through their actions, Members of Congress stand in solidarity with these imprisoned individuals, letting them and their families know that they are neither alone nor forgotten,” Dr. Swett stated. “By shattering the silence, Congressional attention seeks to, and has helped, improve the conditions under which prisoners are held and, in some cases, secured their freedom.” Also among the prisoners is Catholic priest Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who has spent a total of over 15 years in prison in Vietnam for advocating for “religious freedom, democracy, and human rights,” the commission said. He has been imprisoned since 2001 after he testified to U.S. Congress against a trade act with Vietnam. “I nominated Fr. Ly for the Nobel Peace Prize last year and remain an advocate for his release,” Rep. Smith told CNA. “The release of all prisoners of conscience, as well as Internet and religious freedom, should be a U.S. condition for any new trade and security assistance to Vietnam. The Government has also not improved labor rights, and arrests and harasses labor leaders, and restricts workers’ rights to organize independently.” Eritrean Patriarch Abune Antonios is also on the list, having been placed under house arrest after opposing the government’s removal of his administrative authority as head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. He was reportedly accused, among other things, of demanding “that the government release imprisoned Christians accused of treason.” He has reportedly been denied medical care and communication with the outside world. In his proclamation for Human Rights Day, President Obama called “for the release of all who are unjustly detained.” “On the anniversary of this human rights milestone, we join with all those who are willing to strive for a brighter future, and together, we continue our work to build the world our children deserve,” he stated.
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