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Vietnamese activists face jail sentences

WASHINGTON (BP)–A court in Vietnam has sentenced religious liberty advocates Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan — both Christians — to prison terms for “conducting propaganda activities to harm the security of state.”

The sentences were handed down May 11, the day after a congressional hearing in Washington in which witnesses urged the United States to pressure Vietnam to reverse its escalating human rights abuses.

Dai, 38, has been the primary legal defender for the country’s Protestant churches and, with Nhan, also an attorney, has trained Vietnamese students to protect human rights.

Dai was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by four years of house arrest and Nhan, 28, was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of house arrest, according to various news reports.

Dai denied he had broken any laws, according to an Associated Press report. Vietnam’s constitution states: “The citizen shall enjoy freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, the right to be informed, and the right to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations in accordance with the provisions of the law.”

Dai has been a member of the primary Hanoi congregation of the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) since 2000, Compass Direct News Service reported. The church’s pastor, Au Quang Vinh, said Nhan had just completed a doctrine course for new believers in preparation for her baptism, according to Compass.

Neither Dai nor Nhan have admitted guilt and are expected to appeal the sentences to the People’s Supreme Court, the last court of appeal in Vietnam, Compass reported. They were arrested on March 26 and, according to Compass, were “held incommunicado until May 2” for what the government claimed as “national security” reasons.

The May 11 trial of Dai and Nhan lasted only four hours, Compass reported.

The deputy chief of Vietnam’s state news agency, Le Quoc Minh, in a May 10 news release accused Dai and Nhan of conspiring with “criminals and even terrorist organizations responsible for kidnappings, bombings and assassinations” and abusing “the right to freedom of speech by posting information on the Internet and giving interviews to overseas Vietnamese-owned radio stations where he painted a biased and distorted picture of the country and its internal affairs,” as quoted by Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission.

The pair also were accused of making allegations to diplomats and religious freedom organizations in the United States that Vietnam is persecuting Christians.

Minh also charged that Dai had instructed his law office staff members to “travel to the north-western, Central Highlands and southern provinces to contact Protestant clergymen and their followers who have shown hatred toward the government,” as quoted by Compass. Information gathered by Dai and Nhan, according to the state news agency, was “doctored, distorted and fabricated.”

According to a May 15 report at the International Freedom of Expression eXchange, Dai and Nhan “have been under heavy surveillance for some time for their dissident activities and were briefly detained on 3 February 2007 and held for 48 hours. Nguyen Van Dai was reportedly subjected to criticism by a ‘popular court’ on 8 February 2007, in which 200 residents from a district of Hanoi were mobilised by the authorities to insult and denounce him for being a ‘traitor.'”

Dai has regularly posted pro-democracy essays on foreign websites and had started a weblog on the Reporters Sans Frontiers weblog shortly before his arrest (http://nguyenvandai.rsfblog.org).

The International Freedom of Expression eXchange report urged that protests be sent to Vietnamese authorities over the sentencing of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, “expressing deep concern about an apparent crackdown on leading pro-democracy activists and writers for their peaceful dissident activities.”

The appeals should be sent to Vietnam’s president: His Excellency Nguyen Minh Triet; President, Socialist Republic of Vietnam; c/o Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Hanoi, Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Appeals also should be sent to Prime Minister Nguyên Tân Dung and Minister of Culture and Information Le Doan Hop, both at 1 Hoang Hoa Tham Street; Hanoi, Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

“Please note that there are no fax numbers available for the Vietnamese authorities, so you may wish to ask the diplomatic representative for Vietnam in your country to forward your appeals,” the IFEX report noted. “It would also be advantageous to ask your country’s diplomatic representatives in Vietnam to intervene in the case.”

Concerned U.S. citizens should contact Ambassador to Vietnam Michael W. Marine, appointed to his position in 2004, at the U.S. Embassy, 7 Lang Ha Street, Hanoi, Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The embassy also may be reached by phone at (84-4) 8505000 or by fax at (84-4) 8505010.

In the May 10 hearing by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land testified on behalf of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, reiterating the panel’s recommendation that Vietnam be returned to a list of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty and urging Congress to support human rights in the Southeast Asian country.

Diem Do, chairman of the Vietnam Reform Party, told caucus members that Vietnam has been emboldened by the State Department’s removal of Vietnam’s “CPC” designation (“countries of particular concern”) for particularly severe violators of religious freedom — as well as congressional approval of Permanent Normal Trade Relations last December and its entry into the World Trade Organization in January.

Vietnam gained all it “cherished,” Do said, and its leaders sensed an opportunity to “consolidate their power.”

Do told caucus members that the democracy movement in his country has “more determination and strength than ever before,” despite what he described as “32 years of continuous persecution and brutal reign of terror.”

“Never before [have] the communist authorities seen such a grassroots movement represented by so many independent political parties and organizations openly challenging their rule,” he said. “It is no longer the question of if democracy will triumph in Vietnam, but when.”
Compiled by Art Toalston, with reporting by Mark Kelly, Compass Direct News Service and Tom Strode.

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