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Vietnamese Inquisition: Catholic protesters face a show trial as Hanoi's clampdown on religious and media freedom continues

ISN Security Watch
VietCatholic News (11 Dec 2008) 20081209100117 image001

An ongoing face-off between the Vietnamese government and the Catholic Church will come to head any day now, the latest round in a continuing state clampdown on freedom of expression in Vietnam, a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party.

Eight parishioners at the Thai Ha Redemptorist Church in Hanoi will face what will effectively be a closed trial, set to commence soon, though an exact start date has not been announced. The group is accused of "damaging state property and disorderly conduct in public."

The accused have participated in an almost year-long vigil at the Thai Ha Church, protesting what Catholics feel is state expropriation of Church land.

Since late 2007, there have been prayer vigils across the city, as Vietnam's 6 million Catholics protest attempts to turn the former apostolic nunciature in Hanoi into a public park. In September, however, the government's reaction turned violent, with riot police, stun guns and tear gas used against the gatherings. Government officials have publicly denounced the archbishop of Hanoi, using smear tactics in state-owned media as an attempt to turn other Catholics against the protesters and bishops involved.

Lawyers representing two of the protesters - Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, and Ngo Thi Dung, 54 - say they have been denied access to the women, who are awaiting trial inside the Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, where US presidential candidate John McCain was held as a POW during the Vietnam War.

Speaking to the BBC, attorney Le Tran Trout said that from a legal point of view the charge of damaging state property is flawed because he has "enough evidence to prove that the land belongs to them [the parishioners].

"The wall [they tore down] was built illegally on their land," he added, and "they had every right to destroy it." Hence, the "government cannot charge them for damaging state property."

Widening crackdown on dissent

Carl Thayer is a Vietnam watcher and visiting fellow at the Australian National University. He is currently in Hanoi and told ISN Security Watch that the government faced other challenges besides the Catholic vigils, and had been clamping down on other dissenting voices.

Not only has the state reacted violently to Catholic prayer vigils, it has resumed a campaign of vilification against marginal Buddhist sects and of what it deems non-mainstream Protestant groups.

And the crackdown has widened, now taking in critical voices in the media.

Thayer tells ISN Security Watch: "Vietnam has come down hard on journalists and editors who have reported corruption scandals. Journalists and their police informants have been tried and convicted for 'abuse of power.' Punitive action has been taken against other editors and newspapers."

A prominent journalist was jailed in October for reporting on a corruption scandal involving senior officials using overseas aid to place high-stakes bets on football matches in England. Nguyen Viet Chien, a reporter with the daily newspaper Thanh Nien, was sentenced to two years in jail for exposing the scandal, work which the courts declared to be an "abuse of democratic freedoms."

Since then, two more graft controversies have arisen, one involving the bribing of a Ho Chi Minh City official, the other involving illegal trafficking of rhino horns in South Africa.

Slowing economy

Vietnam's slowing economy is causing consternation among the ruling communist elites. The Politburo regards economic dynamism as a necessary component of its tightly controlled system.

Vietnam's communist rulers have taken a path somewhat akin to China, coupling selective free-market reforms with continued political authoritarianism. Rhetorical window-dressing -such as the 1980s doi moi, or renovation - has not meant a diminution of the one-party state.

However, 2008 has seen a slowing growth rate caused by high inflation and the impact of the global financial crisis. Vietnam's current economic difficulties prompted the Politburo to effectively rein in control of the purse strings and decision-making, and "on several occasions issuing directives to the Cabinet on economic policy," according to Carl Thayer.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has been sidelined somewhat, with officials worried that the combination of economic slowdown and political dissent could pose a challenge to their long hegemony.

The Church dispute is likely seen by the Communist Party as an intolerable challenge to state authority at a time of economic weakness.

Taken in by Hanoi

A US government body known as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) outlined in its most recent country report for Vietnam "that in all of the most recent cases of arrest, imprisonment and other detention, religious leaders and religious freedom advocates had engaged in actions protected by international human rights instruments."

However, this has not always been reflected in US policy, as Commissioner Nina Shea outlined to ISN Security Watch in October.

"A clear example of how trade trumped concern for religious freedom occurred in 2006, on the eve of President [George W] Bush's visit to Vietnam for an economic summit, when the State Department removed Vietnam from its short list of the world's worst religious persecutors," Shea said.

It is not just the US, however, that has been taken in by Hanoi. A Potemkin-village relaxation of restriction on religion gave other countries the excuse needed to back the country's entry into the World Trade Organization, and Vietnam remains a recipient of hundreds of millions of euros in bilateral aid.

Hanoi won a UN Security Council seat in 2008, where it teamed up with China and Russia to veto a UNSC resolution condemning Robert Mugabe's brutal crackdown on the Zimbabwean opposition after elections held in the African country this spring.

Some measure of complicity also could be attributed to guileless tourists, who endow the regime with hundreds of millions more in revenue each year, with around 3 million visitors in 2007, and many of those foreign visitors taking in the country's various shrines and temples.

Pro-democracy leader in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, has pleaded with tourists not to visit her country, as it merely endows the Than Shwe junta with legitimacy and revenue. Though conditions in Vietnam are not as oppressive as in Burma, this Hanoi show trial of vigil participants means it might be time to consider a similar move regarding Vietnam.

Long S Le teaches Vietnamese studies at the University of Houston, and outlined the ironic hypocrisy of the communist government's stance for ISN Security Watch: "Vietnam promotes the country's religious traditions to draw foreign travelers to Vietnam's cathedrals, temples and pagodas, while religious groups are still being persecuted."

(By Simon Roughneen in Port Moresby, 5 Dec 2008, Simon Roughneen is an ISN Security Watch senior correspondent, currently in Southeast Asia. He previously reported from the region in 2007. Publisher: International Relations and Security Network, http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Detail/?fecvnodeid=106590&;fecvid=33&v21=109293&lng=en&v33=106590&id=94423)
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