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The Trial of Father Nguyen Van Ly : Role and Responsibility of the Democratic Community

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PARIS, 4 April 2007 (Vietnam Committee on Human Rights) – The trial of Roman Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Ly and his colleagues, condemned to prison sentences of up to 8 years for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (1) is a culmination of the total failure of Western democracies’ policies in Vietnam. On March 30th, the accused had no defence lawyer, no right to defend themselves, and were even physically gagged by Security Police. Such a mockery of justice is routine in Vietnam’s one-Party State. Many people in Europe and America prefer to ignore this, seeing Vietnam more as a booming market or an attractive tourist haven. This showcase trial, to which foreign media and diplomats were exceptionally authorized to attend, nevertheless raises questions as to the timing of this belated crack-down.

In general, Hanoi is extremely swift in crushing all forms of criticism, both real or perceived. In the case of Father Nguyen Van Ly, however, they waited patiently for almost a whole year. Father Nguyen Van Ly began his so-called “spreading propaganda against the socialist regime” on 8 April 2006, when he launched a “Declaration on Freedom and Democracy in Vietnam”. On 20 June 2006, he founded the “Bloc 8406” which drew 2,189 signatures of support by 8 January 2007. He went on to found the “Vietnam Progression Party” on 8 September 2006, and on 16 October created the “Alliance for Democracy and Human Rights in Vietnam”. To the widespread approbation of democratic governments of Europe and the United States, Vietnam took no steps to curb these intensive expressions of dissent. Neither Father Nguyen Van Ly nor any of his 2,189 signatories suffered reprisals for their acts.

In stark contrast, throughout this period, Hanoi pursued repression against members of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, his Deputy Thich Quang Do and leaders of 20 UBCV Provincial Boards set up to help poor people in the Southern and Central provinces. Ethnic Montagnards, Protestants and Hoa Hao Buddhists continued to face brutal repression, to the general indifference of the international media, who considered that such on-going situations was “not news”.

So why did Hanoi’s leaders wait so long before cracking down on Father Nguyen Van Ly? And what emboldened them to do it with such ostentation, if not the smug assurance that they could count on their Western partners’ firm support ? Indeed, this 8-year sentence would probably never have been pronounced if the democratic community, European countries and particularly the United States had not given in so easily to all Hanoi’s demands.

Throughout 2006, the Hanoi regime worked to attain four objectives: the removal of Vietnam from the US State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) for violations of religious freedom; to gain membership of the World Trade Organization; to win Permanent Normal Trade Relations status with the United States; and to smoothly host the APEC Summit in Hanoi.

In response, the democracies of Europe and America, despite their avowed commitment to human rights, relaxed pressure on Vietnam, maintaining the very minimal service of bilateral “human rights dialogues” which take place behind closed doors, outside the scrutiny of parliamentarians or NGOs, and methods of “discrete diplomacy” so dear to the French. Subsequently, in spite of unabated religious repression, the State Department withdrew Vietnam from the CPC blacklist; the European Union and the United States lifted all obstacles to Vietnam’s accession to the WTO, without any regard for harsh impacts of accelerated liberalization on the 80% of Vietnam’s poor who live in the rural areas; no human rights issues clouded the APEC Summit, despite the overt Police repression against dissidents in Hanoi and Saigon; and last but not least, the US granted PNTR status to the Communist regime.

Once Vietnam’s leaders has obtained all they wanted, they no longer needed this façade of political opening. The regime fell back to its old habits of “repression as usual”. This is why Europe and the United States bear a great responsibility in the 8 years of imprisonment imposed on Father Nguyen Van Ly and his colleagues today.

It is now up to democratic countries to press Vietnam to release Father Nguyen Van Ly and his group., but also to release Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do, cyber-dissident Nguyen Vu Binh and all other prisoners of conscience, and to press for a process of political liberalization and democratic reform in Vietnam. One may ask what leverage is left to the international community ? Firstly, the United States should put Vietnam rapidly back on the list of CPCs. The European Union and its member states should be firm and united in condemning abuses and promoting human rights in Vietnam, notably by implementing Article 1 of the 1995 EU-Vietnam Accord which founds cooperation on the respect of democratic principles and human rights. If the democratic community does not take swift action, it could unwittingly contribute to stifling once and for all the peaceful voices calling for democracy and humanism in Vietnam.

Vo Van Ai
President, Vietnam Committee on Human Rights

(1) Father Nguyen Van Ly (61) was sentenced to 8 years in prison and 5 years house arrest (“quan che”). Four others, all members of the Vietnam Progression Party were sentenced as follows; Mr. Nguyen Phong (32) , 6 years in prison and 3 years house arrest; Mr. Nguyen Binh Thanh (52), 5 years in prison and 2 years under house arrest; Ms. Hoang Thi Anh Dao (21), 2 years suspended sentence and 3 years of “test period” (a form of probation); Ms. Le Thi Le Hang (44), 18 months suspended sentence and 30 months test period. The defendants were charged under Article 88 (1a-c) of Vietnam’s Criminal Code for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.

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