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Last of Vietnam’s Mennonite Six Released from Prison

Compass Direct News

Pham Ngoc Thach, a Vietnamese evangelist imprisoned for “resisting an officer doing his duty,” was released today after completing a two-year sentence at Z30A Prison in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province.

A delegation of 15 Mennonite church members, led by the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, traveled to the prison to greet Thach and take him home.

Both Thach and Quang were arrested in March 2004, after they discovered two undercover police agents staking out Quang’s house and reported their presence to city officials. When Thach and a teacher surnamed Hien went to take a picture of the police motorbike for evidence, the policemen attacked them and a scuffle ensued.

Witnesses said the police then tried to incite neighbors to attack Thach and his companions and arrested a church elder named Nhia. When Thach and two other young evangelists, Nguyen Van Phuong and Nguyen Thanh Nhan, went to the police station that night to inquire about Nhia, police arrested them also.

Christians later learned that police beat Thach until he passed out. (See Compass Direct, “Vietnamese Evangelists Severely Beaten in Police Custody,” March 8, 2004.)

Thach and five other Mennonites who eventually came to be known as the “Mennonite Six” were charged with “resisting officers of the law while doing their duty.” According to church officials, however, the men had simply insisted that policemen who were investigating them should follow correct legal procedures.

International Intervention

In a press statement issued earlier today, Vietnamese Mennonite church officials said they believed the release of the six, two before their sentences were complete, happened because of international attention and intervention from human rights organizations, media and religious freedom advocates.

Mennonite church leaders said they wanted to thank all those who had “prayed … and supported our workers imprisoned because of their faith.”

Thach was an assistant to Quang and worked with the legal committee of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship. He was an advocate for individuals and organizations who felt the state had violated their right to religious freedom.

The initial trial of the Mennonite Six was held on November 12, 2004. Thach and co-defendant Quang later appealed to the Supreme People’s Court to overturn their sentences of two and three years respectively, but a judge ruled on April 12, 2005 that their sentences be upheld.

When the appeal hearing was scheduled, the court did not send the legally required announcements and invitation to family members. Thach’s father, Pham Van Khanh, was only able to attend the trial after strong advocacy from Quang’s lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai.

Prison Abuse

During his imprisonment, Thach was held in multiple prisons, including a police lockup, the prison at 4 Phan Dang Luu street in Ho Chi Minh City , Bo La prison in Binh Duong province, and finally Z30A prison in Dong Nai province.

Church officials say prison guards occasionally abused and tortured Thach because he continued to protest his innocence. On several occasions the guards encouraged other prisoners to beat him. They also forced him to carry out heavy manual labor.

As a result of these conditions, his health seriously declined. When his family visited the prison in January, Thach told them he was suffering from serious spinal pain and had lost some vision in one eye. He also claimed he was forbidden to speak of his faith or pray with fellow prisoners.

Thach may still face opposition from the authorities. The other five Mennonites have reported frequent harassment from police, who have employed “many methods to harass them and make their lives difficult.”

In their press statement, leaders of the Vietnamese Mennonite church called on the authorities to “cease their abusive and oppressive actions toward religious organizations in general and the Mennonite church in particular, and to respect our church’s freedom to worship.”