Vietnam: Calls for investigation after death of church elder

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is calling upon the authorities in Vietnam to launch an investigation into the death of a church elder while in police custody.

Vam Ngaij Vaj was the elder of a church affiliated to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam and a member of the Hmong ethnic group from Dak Glong District in the Central Highlands.

He reportedly died on 17 March after being severely beaten and possibly electrocuted after being detained for "destroying the forest" while clearing brush from his field.

According to CSW, police claim Vaj accidentally put his hand into an electrical socket but photos taken soon after his death show heavy bruising to his back and neck.

There is suspicion among members of Vaj's community that the charge of "destroying the forest" was an excuse to terrorise local Hmong Christians, and that Hmong leaders "know of no reason why they are being so mistreated, except that they are Christians".

Many Hmong Christians have fled their traditional homelands in the northwest of the country due to arbitrary arrest, beatings by police, forced or coerced eviction, and fines for conversion to the faith, CSW reports.

In the Central Highlands too, though, legal churches and unregistered congregations are experiencing restrictions on freedom of worship and there are reports of authorities using intimidation tactics, including destroying property, confiscating land and physically assaulting Christians.

CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, "We express our heartfelt condolences to Vam Ngaij Vaj's family and community.

"CSW calls on the Vietnamese Government to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding his death in light of signs that he was tortured while in police custody and to hold those responsible to account.

"The government must also ensure that religious freedom is upheld at a local level in all parts of the country, in order to prevent further violations against Hmong Christians and other believers."