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Vietnam Arrests Human Rights Attorneys, Dissident Priest

by Jeff M. Sellers

3/9/07 Vietnam (Compass Direct News) – The arrest in Hanoi on Tuesday (March 6) of human rights defender Nguyen Van Dai, an elder in his Christian & Missionary Alliance Church , along with the arrest last month of former prisoner of conscience Father Nguyen Van Ly, has cast into question Vietnam ’s claims of progress in religious freedom.

Steps in that progress led to the U.S. State Department removing Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) in mid-November 2006.

Dai, fellow human rights attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan (also arrested on Tuesday), and Fr. Ly are charged with “propagating against” and “defaming” the government, according to Christian legal organization Advocates International (AI). Conviction of this charge under Article 88 of the criminal code carries a jail term of three to 12 years, with 20-year sentences for “particularly serious crimes.”

According to AI’s Asia group, state-run Vietnam TV this week said that police searched the homes of Dai and Nhan and the two were arrested, with police confiscating “many documents with the content of propaganda against the state of Vietnam, and many religious documents that were about to be provided to foreign sources.”

The 37-year-old Dai has participated in AI’s global gatherings in 2000 and in 2004, as well as in various Asia convocations, according to a statement from AI’s Sam Ericsson.

“He has been a brave, gracious, and tactful advocate for human rights, religious freedom and democracy,” Ericsson said.

Dai has defended imprisoned cyber-dissidents and regularly posted pro-democracy essays online, according to human rights organizations. His arrest marks the first time in AI’s 16-year history that an attorney within its global network has been jailed, Ericcson said in the statement.

The World Evangelical Alliance’s (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission said in a statement that Dai was being persecuted for his work as an advocate for religious liberty.

“As a lawyer who is representing the persecuted church and advocating for religious liberty, he has considerable evidence that Vietnam is not living up to its international agreements to improve religious liberty in the country,” the commission’s Elizabeth Kendal said in the statement. “If Vietnam is to retain its privileges while continuing its persecution, then Nguyen Van Dai must be silenced.”

Vietnamese authorities had detained and interrogated Dai and other activists last November 9 to 14, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) – and was kept under house arrest from November 15 to 22, before and after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit took place.

He was again detained and questioned on February 3-4, along with other activists, after hosting Vietnam’s first-ever discussion on human rights law, according to WEA’s Religious Liberty Commission.

After Vietnam hosted the APEC summit and was removed from the state department’s list of the worst violators of religious freedom, the U.S. Congress in December granted the country Permanent Normal Trading Relationship status with the United States , thus clearing the way for it to gain full accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Sophie Richardson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement that the arrest of Dai, Nhan and Fr. Ly reflects one of the worst crackdowns on human rights in 20 years.

“The Vietnamese government, emboldened by international recognition after joining the World Trade Organization and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, is flouting its international commitments on human rights,” Richardson said. “The government’s ongoing criminalization of peaceful political dissent and violations of basic human rights threatens to undermine its economic achievements.”

Dai and Nhan could be held in pretrial custody for up to four months, according to HRW.

Father Ly’s Hunger Strike

In the central city of Hue , the arrest on February 18 of Fr. Ly, a long-time advocate of human rights in Vietnam , shocked but did not surprise human rights groups.

“We anticipated this crackdown on dissent after the APEC summit once Vietnam had obtained all it wanted from the international community,” Vo Van Ai of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights told AI. “We did not have to wait long.”

Before his release on February 1, 2005, Fr. Ly had been incarcerated for more than three years as prisoner of conscience after being sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 2001 for writing to a U.S. government agency about religious rights violations. While in prison, he was severely tortured.

After raiding his home last month, Vietnamese authorities have moved Fr. Ly to a new location where he is under house arrest. HRW reported that police confiscated computers, telephones and more than 200 kilograms of documents.

According to HRW, a February 26 article on the 59-year-old Fr. Ly’s arrest in the country’s Communist Party daily, Nhan Dan (The People) claimed that the government had “smashed” the “extremists’ sabotage scheme.”

Fr. Ly is one of the founders of Block 8406, a democracy movement launched in April 2006 when hundreds of people throughout Vietnam signed public petitions calling for democracy and human rights, according to HRW.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement that Fr. Ly was on hunger strike from February 24 to March 5, and then transferred to the Ben Cui parish building in Phong Xuan, where he is guarded by some 20 policemen. Forbidden to leave the building, he is not allowed to attend mass and cannot receive visits from friends, RSF said.

Measured Progress

At press time, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford was not available for comment on the recent arrests of human rights activists.

With significant exceptions, Vietnam has affected “a remarkable turnaround” in religious freedom, according to a February report by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Religious Liberty Commission.

“There has been a significant and quite rapid reduction in the most egregious abuse and persecution of Protestant believers – in forced renunciation programs, imprisonments, and physical abuse,” the report concludes. But it also notes that the country’s new religion legislation does not grant the degree of freedom stipulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nor even meet the standards of Article 70 of Vietnam’s own 1992 constitution.

“The old anti-religion ideology is still alive as expressed in the 2006 religion training manual for the NMR [Northwest Mountainous Region] published by the second highest authority on religion in Vietnam, the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs,” the report says