WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday called out ally Saudi Arabia for the suppression of religious liberties and urged it to release Raif Badawi, a blogger imprisoned for insulting Islam.
Addressing a conference on religious freedom at the State Department, Pence highlighted the detention of religious dissidents in Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
“All four of these men have stood strong in defense of religious liberty, despite unimaginable pressure, and the American people stand with them,” Pence said, “The United States calls upon the governments of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.”
The highlighting by Pence of the treatment of Badawi comes as U.S. lawmakers have accused the Trump administration for failing to act against the kingdom’s leaders for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers, citing evidence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the Khashoggi case and incensed over the civilian toll from the Saudi air campaign in Yemen, have ramped up efforts to block Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The CIA has determined with “medium to high confidence” that the Saudi crown prince, commonly known by his initials MbS and considered de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, ordered the killing, U.S. government sources have said.
Badawi, who set up the “Free Saudi Liberals” website, was arrested in June 2012 for offences which included cyber crime and disobeying his father - a crime in Saudi Arabia.
The prosecution had demanded he be tried for apostasy, which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, but a judge dismissed that charge.
He was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in jail, a fine of 1 million riyals ($267,000) and 1,000 lashes after prosecutors challenged an earlier sentence of seven years and 600 lashes as too lenient. His public flogging in 2015 generated a global outcry.
Pence also cited the detention of a 90-year-old Orthodox Church patriarch by Eritrea; the jailing of Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a blogger in Mauritania, for apostasy; and the imprisonment by Pakistan of Junair Hafeez, a lecturer, who is accused of blasphemy and being kept in solitary confinement.
The case of the Pakistani lecturer is likely to be raised next week in meetings in Washington between Trump administration officials and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis