Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vietnam jails pro-democracy priest

Vietnam Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly was jailed yesterday for eight years for dissent. In a one day trial in the city of Hue, the 60 year old Father Ly was found guilty of charges of disseminating information to undermine the state. Four co-defendants also received prison terms ranging from 18 months suspended to six years. Ly was accused of producing anti-government documents and communicating with anti-communist groups overseas.

Judge Bui Quoc Hiep told the court the defendants’ behaviour “amounted to the crime of spreading propaganda against the Socialist state”. The judge said Ly deserved "severe punishment" for masterminding efforts to boycott Vietnam's upcoming legislative elections, establish unsanctioned political parties, and overthrow the government. State media accused Ly of forming illegal parties for May’s National Assembly election.

An envoy from the Vatican discussed Father Ly’s case with authorities during a visit to Vietnam earlier this month, but would not say what Vietnam's response was. Vietnam cut ties with the Vatican in 1975, and has controlled religious and political expression since. Monsignor Pietro Parolin, Vatican undersecretary of state (and de facto deputy foreign minister) met with Nguyen The Doanh of the Government Committee for Religion on 6 March to discuss re-establishing diplomatic relations. He raised the matter of Father Ly who was on hunger strike at the time.

Ly is no stranger to Vietnamese prisons having already spent 14 of the past 24 years in jail. He was last jailed in 2001 after he faced another one-day trial without a defence lawyer. He was sentenced to 15 years prison for promoting religious freedom and urging the US to link its trade policy with Vietnam's human rights record. Ly was released as part of an amnesty in 2005.

On 19 February this year, dozens of police in Hue raided his parish home. The police officers were led by a colonel who specialises in religious matters. They cut phone lines and searched the entire building, breaking open a cupboard which Ly refused to unlock. They confiscated computers, telephones and more than 200 kilograms of documents. The authorities arrested him on charges of “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. He was moved to a remote location where he was kept under house arrest until the trial. In an article announcing Father Ly's arrest, the official Party daily newspaper, Nhan Dan (The People) said that the government had "smashed" the "extremists" sabotage scheme.

Ly is a founding member of Bloc 8406, a new pro-democracy movement. On 8 April 2006 (and hence the name Bloc 8406), a group launched the 2006 Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy as a rallying cry for political action in Vietnam. Bloc 8406 argue the Vietnamese Communist Party’s refusal to liberalise the political system has resulted in widespread corruption and stagnation. Vietnamese authorities have intimidated, harassed and detained key activists for questioning 50 US Congress members signed an open letter in support of Bloc 8406 as did many founders of the Czech Charter 77 including former president Vaclav Havel. The bloc initiated campaign to boycott last years APEC summit and the National Assembly elections in July this year unless there are reforms to ensure a free and fair vote.

Father Ly is not the only dissident to arrested recently. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) press release of 9 March said two human rights lawyers were also arrested. On 6 March, police arrested Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan in Hanoi. Van Doi founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam in 2006 and recently received the Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers. Nhan is also a lawyer and she is a spokesperson for the Dang Thang Tien Vietnam Party (Vietnam Progression Party)

An official response from the Vietnamese Communist Party rejected these allegations. They claim HRW regularly produces “fabricated information” that fails to reflect the real situation in Vietnam. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Dung said "Although the State of Vietnam respects the rights to freedom and democracy of all citizens, the country never accepts the abuses of the rights to freedom and democracy to carry out activities that violate Vietnamese law.” He described the crackdown on dissidents as “nonsense”.

US Congressman Chris Smith (R- NJ) has called Ly’s sentence "outrageous and appalling" and appealed for the US. to immediately intervene to secure his freedom. Smith has been to Vietnam where he met Ly. He introduced a resolution into the House two weeks ago calling on Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release several political prisoners including Ly. Smith said in a statement yesterday “all Father Ly wants is a better future for his country. His arrest and conviction are purely political, a shameful attempt to silence him and intimidate anyone else who dares to speak out against the government."

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