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AFP : US pressed to seek rights improvements from Vietnam

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WASHINGTON, 11 April 2013 (AFP) – Lawmakers and activists called Thursday for the United States to press Vietnam to free dissidents and allow greater religious freedom as the two nations hold talks on human rights.

The two nations hold an annual dialogue Friday in Hanoi on Vietnam’s human rights record, an issue that has been a source of persistent concern in the United States despite warming relations between the former war adversaries.

At a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lawmakers and campaigners called for the United States to press for Vietnam to release critics of the government, such as outspoken Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly.

In the past year Vietnam’s “rights record has worsened. Numbers are clear indicators, so there really isn’t any doubt about it,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

Sifton said Vietnam is known to have convicted and sentenced at least 40 people last year, an increase from 2011, for violating a penal code that bans criticism of the government and the ruling communist party.

A representative of the Unified Buddhist Church, which was banned in the early 1980s for refusing to join the state-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Church, said that authorities were stepping up intimidation of the group.

Vo Van Ai, who is also president of the France-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, said that the United States needed to raise such cases “assertively” with Hanoi.

“I call upon Congress and the State Department to look behind Hanoi’s mask, beyond the veneer of state-sponsored freedom of worship, and recognize the full extent of religious repression,” he said.

Just last week, he said, men threw water mixed with rotten fish and excrement at the home of formerly jailed writer Huynh Ngoc Tuan and authorities prevented his son from flying to the United States to accept a prize.

The State Department in a statement said it was committed to a “frank, results-based discussion” with Vietnam during Friday’s talks.

Critics have charged that the dialogue has produced no results as the United States at the same time is increasing cooperation with Vietnam on defense and trade.

Representative Chris Smith, who chaired the hearing, renewed calls for the United States to designate Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” on religious freedom, which could bring repercussions without improvement.

“Dialogues have a use, but they should not be in lieu of substantive actions and my fear is that is what they do,” Smith told reporters.

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