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Thich Thien Minh calls on the United States to maintain Vietnam on the list of worst religious freedom offenders

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Venerable Thich Thien MinhBuddhist monk Thich Thien Minh, 51, member of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam released in a government amnesty on 2 February 2005 after 26 years in re-education camp has sent an “Petition” to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) denouncing grave abuses of religious freedom in Vietnam and calling on the United States to maintain Vietnam on the list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for its egregious violations of religious rights. In September 2004, the United States blacklisted Vietnam as one the world’s worst offenders of religious freedom and it will decide on 15th March whether to maintain Vietnam on the list and what sanctions should eventually be applied. The USCIRF, a body set up under the 1998 U.S. International Religious Freedom Act, is currently advising President George W. Bush and the U.S. State Department on this decision.

“In Vietnam today, the basic freedoms of religion, movement, the press, association and peaceful assembly are enshrined in the Constitution but not respected in reality”, wrote Thich Thien Minh. “Pressed by these urgent concerns, I send this Petition to urge the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom not to remove Vietnam from the list of “countries of particular concern, but to put them to test for a period of time, to ensure that they make real and lasting improvements. The Vietnamese Communist Party has so many cunning schemes, I fear they can easily deceive international opinion !”

In the Petition, Venerable Thich Thien Minh reported that he and his relatives had been subjected to continuous surveillance, Police controls and harassments since his release. “The authorities forced me to live in my brother’s home after I left prison. Since then, they have continuously pressured my relatives to report on me and use their influence to restrict my freedoms in every way they can… As for me, each time I step outside, I am followed closely by Security Police. On 16 February, for example, I went to Saigon to have an X-ray on the tumour on my neck. I was only there for one day, but the Police in Tan Binh Ward searched my sister’s house (where I was staying). They drew up a report stating that I was living there illegally, and summoned my sister Huynh Thi Hai to the Police station for interrogations. Wherever I went, Police followed close on my heels, even when I went to the Tumour Clinic, or on the bus back to Bac Lieu Province… Security Police kept watch round-the-clock on my sister’s house in Saigon. During the 18 hours I spent away from Bac Lieu, Security Police interrogated my relatives repeatedly about my whereabouts. This non-stop surveillance gives me the impression that I have not been released, but simply transferred from an old prison to a new one ! ”

“In my opinion, the recent government amnesties were simply a ploy to delude international opinion. All the political prisoners released in the amnesty are under strict Police surveillance today. Besides, most of us had almost finished our sentences by the time we were released…”

Thich Thien Minh said that some 60 religious prisoners remained in detention under very harsh conditions in Z30A K3 Re-education Camp in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province, e.g. :

Father Pham Minh Tri, 66, a Roman Catholic priest from the Congregation of the Mother Co-redemptrix, detained for 18 years (he has been insane for the past 10 years, but is still detained) ; 2. Father Nguyen Viet Huan, 56, also detained for 18 years, member of the Congregation of the Mother Co-redemptrix ; 3. Ngo Van Ninh, 87, Head of the “Buu son Ky huong” Hoa Hao sect ; 4. Le Van Chuong, 42, Hoa Hao Buddhist monk from the “Buu son Ky huong” sect ; 5. Nguyen Van Si, 42, Buddhist monk from the Therevada school ; 6. Le Van Tinh, 66, Hoa Hao Buddhist, was detained in solitary confinement for 5 years for protesting the arbitrary detention of political prisoners ; 7. Mai Xuan Khanh, 64, a Roman Catholic ; 8. Phuong Van Kien, 71, a Hoa hao Buddhist ; Tran Van Thieng, 67, a UBCV Buddhist.

He also said that many religious prisoners were tortured to death in Xuan Phuoc Re-education Camp in Phu Yen province – a notoriously harsh camp known as the “Valley of Death”, where he spent the first 6 years of his sentence. He cited the cases of Roman Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Vang, a Redemptorist, died of oedema after drinking his own urine. He had been fed on a diet of salt and rice alone, with only ½ litre of water per day ; Father Nguyen Quang Minh of the Vinh Son Congregation was beaten to death because he brought sacramental Host into the camp ; Father Nguyen Luan died of tuberculosis after being beaten frequently and forced to sleep on the floor without a blanket ; Dinh Van Kiep, a Cao Dai priest was beaten for smuggling a few green vegetables to a hungry inmate, and died later of tuberculosis ; Truong Phuoc Duc, a Cao Dai follower, who died after frequent beatings and punishments…

In his Petition, he also denounced the arbitrary detention of leaders of the banned UBCV, notably the Fourth Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, detained in Binh Dinh province, Very Venerable Thich Quang Do, Head of the UBCV’s Executive Institute “Vien Hoa Dao”, detained at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon ; Venerable Thich Tue Sy in Gia Lam Pagoda, Saigon ; Ven. Thich Khong Tanh, Lien Tri Pagoda, Saigon ; Ven. Thich Hue Dang, 242/20 Bui Vien Street, Ward 1, Saigon.

Thich Thien Minh called on the USCIRF to urge the Vietnamese authorities to take 10 concrete steps to prove its true commitment to implementing religious freedom in Vietnam :

“1) unconditionally release all religious prisoners unjustly detained in prisons and camps ;

“2) re-establish the legal status of the outlawed UBCV ;

“3) guarantee freedom of movement for UBCV members to visit their elders and dignitaries without any restriction or impediment by the authorities ;

“4) abrogate Decree 31/CP on “administrative detention” ;

“5) revise the 2004 Ordinance on Religions and Religious Organisations ;

“6) revise the Ordinance on Enforcement of Prison Sentences, allow libraries to be set up in the prisons, grant prisoners access to books and newspapers, including foreign-language material so that they can follow current events and enhance their knowledge ;

“7) adopt special regulations for prisoners of conscience in line with international human rights standards and norms ;

“8) improve detention conditions – prisoners’ food rations are grossly insufficient and lacking in protein (even these meagre rations are often stolen) ;

“9) abrogate Article 4 of the Vietnamese Constitution (on the monopoly of the Communist Party) and establish a multi-party, pluralist system in which all political parties have the right to participate ;

“10) organise free and fair elections under international supervision in a spirit of humanity and good-will, in order to efface all hatreds and implement a policy of reconciliation for all…”

Thich Thien Minh sent the Petition, with copies to Venerable Thich Quang Do and the International Buddhist Information Bureau in Paris, “on behalf of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam, calling on the USCIRF to do its part to “help bring Vietnam rapidly out of this period of suffering”.

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