By Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler, CNN
The Biden administration is adding the Wagner Group, an infamous private Russian military firm, to the list of Entities of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act “based on its actions in the Central African Republic,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday.
In addition, Cuba and Nicaragua were added to the 2022 list of Countries of Particular Concern, meaning they have “engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.” China, Russia, Iran, Myanmar, Eritrea, North Korea and Pakistan remain on the list.
Blinken also said he was “placing Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros, and Vietnam on the Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.”
“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs. In some instances, they stifle individuals’ freedom of religion or belief to exploit opportunities for political gain. These actions sow division, undermine economic security, and threaten political stability and peace. The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses,” Blinken said.
The designations are required to be made under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Nations that are named as Countries of Particular Concern could face sanctions, as the US government is required by the law to impose one or more “presidential actions” against those countries unless a waiver is granted or an exception is made because they are already sanctioned.
According to a State Department official, waivers were issued this year to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan because it was determined that “the important national interest of the United States require[d] the exercise of such waiver authority.”
Burma, Cuba, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua and Russia were given an exception on a new “presidential action” and are instead considered “dual-hatted,” meaning they were already sanctioned in other areas but are now also considered sanctioned as Countries of Particular Concern.
The Wagner Group now joins other Entities of Particular Concern on the list: al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and the Taliban.
CNN has done extensive reporting on the Wagner Group’s financing of army recruits in the Central African Republic by hundreds of Russian mercenaries.
According to the State Department official, “Wagner disproportionately targeted members of religious minority groups during operations against rebel groups, in some cases killing Muslim civilians based on perceived and unverified affiliations with armed groups.”
“In many instances, Wagner did not discriminate between armed elements and ordinary civilians of religious minority communities,” the official said. “Wagner also engaged in mass killings targeting Fulani communities.”
“We condemn Wagner’s targeting of Muslim communities and urge the CAR government to hold its security partners accountable and consider the destructive implications of Wagner’s continued presence in the country,” the official said.
In a statement, Blinken said that the “announcement of these designations is in keeping with our values and interests to protect national security and to advance human rights around the globe. Countries that effectively safeguard this and other human rights are more peaceful, stable, prosperous and more reliable partners of the United States than those that do not.”
He added that the US welcomes the opportunity to meet with governments to discuss practices that “do not meet international standards and commitments, and to outline concrete steps in a pathway to removal from these lists.”
The Biden administration is considering designating the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization amid ongoing efforts to impose costs on Russia for the Ukraine war, a US official told CNN this week.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, condemned the exclusion of India and Nigeria from this year’s Countries of Particular Concern list.
“There is no justification for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria or India as egregious violators of religious freedom, as they each clearly meet the legal standards for designation as CPCs. USCIRF is tremendously disappointed that the Secretary of State did not implement our recommendations and recognize the severity of the religious freedom violations that both USCIRF and the State Department have documented in those countries,” USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel said in a statement.
“The State Department’s own reporting includes numerous examples of particularly severe religious freedom violations in Nigeria and India,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional details.
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