Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Vietnamese rights groups expressed concern Wednesday that Vietnam's government may be able to dodge sanctions by offering "token" gestures and making empty commitments to improve religious freedom.
Campaigners raised the concern after the State Department said it had asked Congress for more time to discuss with Hanoi how to end abuses suffered by some religious groups in the communist-ruled country.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act, the administration last September named Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs), joining a list already comprising Burma, North Korea, China, Iran and Sudan.
The 1998 law gives the State Department up to six months to discuss problem areas with newly-designated CPCs, and to announce punitive steps to be taken against those not acting to address the concerns.
When the six-month time period ended on Tuesday, the department said it had asked Congress for several more weeks, and indicated that the talks were bearing fruit.
"We made some important progress," said department spokesman Adam Ereli.
"We think that with a little bit more time we can take care of some of the issues that were problematic for us ... we expect decisions to be finalized and announced in the next few weeks."
Although he did not elaborate, Ereli said "some actions" had been taken over the past six months.
Final assessments would be made based on what the countries had done and what they had committed themselves to doing.
The U.S. accuses the Vietnam government of oppressing adherents of non-recognized religions, especially ethnic minority Protestant Christians and independent Buddhists.
Hundreds of churches have been shut down, and human rights groups cite cases of officials trying to force ethnic minority Christians to abandon their faith. Human Rights Watch says at least three Catholic priests have been in prison for almost 20 years.
In two recent gestures, the authorities freed several prominent prisoners of conscience and published a new prime minister's decree outlawing attempts by officials to force Protestant to abandon their religion, and saying that some currently unauthorized Protestant groups would be allowed conditionally to apply for official recognition.
But Helen Ngo, head of the Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam, expressed skepticism about the moves.
She said the recently-released leaders were unable to move around freely, but were constantly being followed around by members of the special police.
One of them, Thich Thien Minh of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), had been in jail since 1979. He spoke after his release about the regime having exchanged his small prison for a bigger one, Ngo said.
Regular contact with people inside Vietnam, she added, made it clear that persecution and harassment were continuing.
Ngo cited a recent incident in a village in the north-west province in which police who were harassing three ethnic Hmong Christian families were challenged by a seven-year-old girl who protested when they helped themselves to several household pigs.
The child was beaten so badly she could not walk for a week. When her father - who was detained at the time of the assault - was released he wrote a petition letter to a senior official, but was told in reply: "You are a Protestant. I can't do anything for you."
The new prime minister's decree allowing some Protestant groups to apply for recognition was also seen as little more than an empty gesture, Ngo said.
"Talk about things improving in Vietnam - I don't think that's true."
The committee hoped the U.S. government would impose measures that would affect the regime financially -- "money is very important to the Vietnam government" -- such as reducing non-humanitarian aid or opposing new World Bank loans.
'Appeasing the Americans'
Trung Doan, the general-secretary of Australia's 200,000-strong Vietnamese community, said Thursday the recent steps taken by the Vietnamese government were "token."
"The number of prisoners released, compared to the number in prison, is only a small percentage," he said. His group had a list of 110 known "religious prisoners" and the real number was likely to be much higher.
The prime minister's decree was also not meaningful, Doan charged. When a Christian house meeting was broken up a few days ago, police had laughed when the protesting believers cited the new policy document.
"The local police know very well that this decree is just there to appease the Americans," he said. "If it is only there for diplomatic purposes, why should I follow it? That's what a local cadre would ask himself."
"We believe the U.S. government should not let Hanoi off the hook," Doan said. "The American government is probably the only power in the world that has the power and the will to put some pressure on them."
Earlier, Human Rights Watch also called into question Hanoi's commitment to improving religious rights.
In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the organization said the latest decree "advances Vietnam's official stance that religious freedom is a privilege to be requested and granted by the government, rather than a fundamental human right."
The Vietnam government claims that some ethnic minority Christians have links to "subversive" groups.
The decree links recognition of Protestant churches to their renunciation of groups accused of organizing anti-government protests.
The U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, John Hanford, held talks in Vietnam last week.
The official Voice of Vietnam reported that deputy public security minister Nguyen Van Huong had assured Hanford that "there are no religious prisoners in Vietnam."
Those described as such by the U.S. were in fact "religious followers who violated Vietnamese laws," Huong reportedly told the diplomat.
The report said Hanoi complained that the U.S. had named Vietnam a CPC on the basis of "wrongful information" about the situation, provided by "bad elements."
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