Christians Caught up in Crackdown on Peaceful Dissidents in Vietnam

Human Rights Watch accuses Vietnamese government of "flouting its international commitments on human rights" after the recent arrests of two human rights lawyers and a Catholic priest.

Human Rights Watch has expressed alarm over what it calls "one of the worst crackdowns" in 20 years by the Vietnamese government on peaceful dissidents, including a Catholic priest and other Christians.

The organisation sharply condemned the recent arrests of two outspoken human rights lawyers and a dissident Catholic priest, and said the Vietnamese government now felt "emboldened by international recognition" after joining the World Trade Organisations and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

On February 18, dozens of police in Hue raided the parish home of Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest and former prisoner of conscience. They confiscated computers, telephones and more than 200 kilograms of documents. The authorities moved him to a remote location, where he remains under house arrest.

Father 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.

On March 6, police arrested Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan in Hanoi. Nguyen Van Dai, is one of Vietnam's few practicing human rights lawyers. He founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam in 2006 and recently received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers, which is administered by Human Rights Watch.

Le Thi Cong Nhan, also a lawyer, has served as spokesperson for the Dang Thang Tien Vietnam Party (Vietnam Progression Party), one of several opposition parties that have been created during the last year. She is known as a vocal champion of human rights.

"Vietnam has now taken its place on the world economic stage, but its human rights record lags far behind," said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government's ongoing criminalisation of peaceful political dissent and violations of basic human rights threatens to undermine its economic achievements."

Vietnam is a one-party communist state with a strict ban on opposition parties, independent media and labour unions, as well as unsanctioned religious organisations.

"These are all peaceful dissidents," said Richardson. "They have simply advocated for rights guaranteed both by Vietnam's Constitution and its international obligations under human rights treaties."

Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan were among many other dissidents confined to their homes last November, before and after Hanoi hosted the APEC summit. The two were detained and interrogated again on February 4.

In February, the authorities temporarily detained and questioned a number of other free speech activists and democracy advocates, including: Catholic priests Chan Tin and Phan Van Loi, editors of the underground publication Tu Do Ngoan Luan (Freedom of Speech); Vietnam Progression Party members Nguyen Phong, Nguyen Binh Thanh, and Hoang Thi Anh Dao; democracy activists Bach Ngoc Duong, Nguyen Phuong Anh and Pham Van Coi.

Human Rights Watch said that members of independent Protestant churches in the northern and central highlands also faced ongoing pressure from the authorities. More than 350 ethnic minority Christian "Montagnards" from the central highlands have been taken as political prisoners, the organisation said.

"Despite the official rhetoric, the Vietnamese government can't really pretend to be working towards a just and democratic society when it continues to persecute those who articulate different political views, who support multi-party democracy, or simply advocate for basic human rights," said Richardson.