HANOI, March 29 (AFP) – The United Nations in Vietnam said Monday it was to gain access to a Buddhist dissident jailed for undermining national security despite being granted refugee status, and could help him to leave the country.
Vu Anh Son, of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told AFP his organisation had requested to meet Pham Van Tuong, an ex-monk known as Thich Tri Luc who was sentenced to 20 months on March 12.
“We have requested… to meet with him and we were granted the permission,” Son explained.
“The date (of the meeting) has not been fixed yet”, he said. “We have to meet him and do some formalities. And if he wants it, we could organize his resettlement.”
Tuong, convicted of undermining national security, was released last Friday after having already served time following his arrest in 2002, according to the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB).
His release could not be immediately confirmed by officials.
Tuong, 50, is a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which was outlawed in 1981 after it refused to come under the control of the ruling Communist Party.
The state-controlled Vietnam News Agency said last week he was caught in the southern province of Tay Ninh, close to the border with Cambodia, after being expelled by Cambodian police for illegal immigration.
According to the report, Tuong pleaded guilty during his trial.
“To quickly achieve a refugee status, I invented a story on Vietnam’s ill treatment of dissidents and another on prisoners dying in floodwater,” the accused was quoted as saying by the agency.
But IBIB said Tuong was kidnapped and forcibly repatriated to Vietnam in July 2002 from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, two months after fleeing his country, despite having already been granted refugee status by the UNHCR.
“The first-hand account shows clearly that Vietnam masterminded the kidnapping and repatriation of Pham Van Tuong to stop him speaking out about political and religious repression in Vietnam,” IBIB president Vo Van Ai said in a statement.
Tuong has apparently told IBIB he would ask the United Nations to help him leave the country and added he would remain faithful to UBCV.
The US embassy in Hanoi said Monday it urged the Vietnamese government to give the UN refugee agency access to Tuong “for refugee status determination”, adding it had no independent sources on the case.
Over the past six months, Hanoi has been the target of international criticism over a renewed crackdown on the UBCV.
In October, its elderly patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his deputy Thich Quang Do — Vietnam’s most prominent religious dissidents — were accused of possessing state secrets and seeking foreign help to reorganise the church.
The pair were placed under unofficial house arrest.