HANOI, 10 April 2007 (Reuters) – U.S. officials have visited a dissident Buddhist monk under house arrest as Washington applies pressure on communist-run Vietnam to release political and religious activists.
The delegation visited Thich Quang Do of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) on Monday, four days after the U.S. ambassador in Hanoi said a dissident Catholic priest sentenced in a four-and-a-half hour trial on March 30 should be freed.
Washington and diplomats from about 30 European countries have complained to Hanoi about the arrests in February and March of Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly and two Hanoi-based lawyers, all of whom faced criminal charges of anti-government activity.
Ly was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment but no trial date has been scheduled yet for the lawyers.
Paris-based supporters of the 78-year-old Do quoted him as telling visiting U.S. State Department officials the one-party state was engaged in a “ruthless crackdown” on people calling for more freedom of expression, a charge Hanoi rejects.
A U.S. Embassy official on Tuesday confirmed the visit by deputy assistant secretary of state Eric John to the monk’s Ho Chi Minh City monastery “as part of regular visits made by U.S. officials to any number of religious leaders in Vietnam.”
Hanoi rejects Western human rights groups’ charge that there has been a crackdown on activists.
Father Ly was a founder one year ago of “Bloc 8406,” named after the April 8, 2006 date it revealed itself with a “Manifesto for Freedom and Democracy.” Some diplomats describe the bloc as the closest Vietnam comes to having a dissident movement.
The United States and Vietnam have discussed this year’s arrests at the highest levels, U.S. officials said.
A Hanoi government spokesman acknowledged differences between Washington and Hanoi on religion and human rights.
“This results from the differences in political regime and also our economic and social development and this is understandable,” spokesman Le Dung told reporters on March 22.
The Communist Party is the only legal political party in the poor Southeast Asian country of 84 million, which has one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Last year Vietnam clinched a trade deal with its former enemy the United States, was removed from a U.S. blacklist on religious rights, and won membership of the World Trade Organisation.
“Having obtained all its goals, the communist regime was now bent on stifling democratic voices once and for all,” a statement by UBCV in Paris quoted Do as telling the U.S. officials. “The U.S. should not stand by and allow Hanoi to act with impunity.”
The group, which refuses to adhere to state-supervised religion, accuses the government of harassing followers. The movements of patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and deputy leader Do are restricted.
On March 15, three Norwegians were briefly detained by police as they arrived to visit Do at his monastery. The Norwegians were representing the Bergen-based Rafto Foundation, which awarded the monk its annual human rights prize in 2006.