(CNSNews.com) – The lengthy prison term given to a Vietnamese democracy campaigner Wednesday is the second incident in three weeks to raise questions about the communist government’s commitment to democratic reform and free expression.
Vi Duc Hoi, a former high-ranking party district official expelled in 2007 for advocating democracy, was sentenced in a closed court hearing to eight years’ imprisonment followed by five years’ house arrest, his lawyer said.
Hoi is a member of a pro-democracy movement called Block 8406 – a reference to its launch date of April 8, 2006 – and was known for posting articles online highlighting corruption and calling for democratic reforms.
The 54 year-old was convicted under section 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, a controversial provision that outlaws “propaganda against the socialist state.”
Hoi’s sentencing came just days after the Communist Party’s congress, which is held once every five years, reshuffled top positions and picked new leaders for the years ahead.
The meeting confirmed that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung would retain his post, named a successor to retiring ceremonial president, Nguyen Minh Triet, and picked a hardliner, Nguyen Phu Trong, as party general secretary.
“This harsh sentence just days after the 11th Party Congress confirms the Vietnamese Communist Party’s disregard for human rights and lack of popular support,” Duy Hoang, a U.S.-based spokesman for the banned pro-democracy group Viet Tan, said Wednesday. “Only a dictatorship punishes its citizens for so-called anti-state propaganda.”
Hoang noted that Hoi has written extensively on corruption and injustice and said it was “appalling that he has been punished for being a voice of conscience.”
“By stifling differing viewpoints, the Hanoi regime is preventing Vietnam from realizing its full potential.”
Human rights groups say dozens of Vietnamese democracy advocates and bloggers, anti-corruption campaigners and rights defenders have been targeted in a crackdown that worsened over the last year, even as Hanoi’s relationship with Washington continued to strengthen.
Last year marked the 15th anniversary of the normalization of ties between the former foes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Vietnam twice, the two sides held their first-ever security dialogue at deputy ministerial level last August, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited in October.
Apart from the clampdown on dissidents Vietnam’s religious freedom record has also deteriorated, according to Human Rights Watch. The advocacy group this week added its voice to that of a U.S. congressional panel that has long been pressing the administration to return Vietnam to a list of religious freedom violators.
Early this month a U.S. Embassy official was assaulted and injured by Vietnamese security officials as he tried to visit a dissident Roman Catholic priest under house arrest in the central city of Hue, Nguyen Van Ly.
The U.S. government issued a formal protest about the treatment meted out to Christian Marchant, a political officer who is reportedly in line to receive a State Department human rights award for achievements including being “a persuasive advocate for Vietnam’s beleaguered dissident community.
State-controlled media subsequently reported claims by unnamed officials that Marchant had behaved aggressively in the Jan. 5 incident, shouting and shoving a Vietnamese officer.
Ly, the priest Marchant was trying to visit, is one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents and has served as an advisor to Block 8406.
Ly has been in and out of prison for years. Most recently he was sentenced in 2007 to eight years’ imprisonment for distributing anti-government material and communicating with pro-democracy activists abroad. He was released last March on medical parole but remains confined to his home in Hue.
‘Country of particular concern’
Citing government restrictions on religious freedom, Human Rights Watch on Monday said the U.S. government should return Vietnam to its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a designation provided for under a landmark 1998 religious freedom law.
“Vietnam’s crackdown on religion is systematic, severe, and getting worse by the day,” said Phil Robertson, the group‘s deputy director for Asia.
HRW in its annual report said the government had harassed adherents of independent religious groups including Protestants, Buddhists and followers of Cao Dai, a syncretist Vietnamese religious movement. It also noted that a number of religious leaders were in detention.
The Bush administration designated Vietnam as a CPC in 2004 but the following year Hanoi signed an agreement with the U.S. undertaking to address concerns, and the State Department removed it from the list in late 2006, citing “significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom.”
Vietnamese-American groups critical of the delisting decision said that any supposed improvement was window-dressing by Hanoi designed to strengthen its case for normalized trade relations with the U.S. ahead of its World Trade Organization accession early the following year.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body set up under the same 1998 law to advise government on the issue, also called the delisting premature and opposed it.
The USCIRF has since then urged the State Department to restore Vietnam’s CPC status, to no avail. (Countries currently designated CPCs are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.)
“Vietnam is supposed to be our new best friend in Asia, but the United States cannot continue to pursue a relationship that advances Vietnam’s economic and security interests without seeing progress on human rights and the rule of law,” USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo said last October, on the eve of a visit to Vietnam by Clinton.
In a Human Rights Day speech in Hanoi last December, U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak (since-departed) discussed some human rights concerns in the country, but said he had seen “strong improvements” in the religious freedom sphere over the past three years.
He cited increased religious participation, growing numbers of registered and recognized religious organizations and places of worship, bigger involvement of religious groups in charitable activities, and a meeting between the Vietnamese president and Pope Benedict.
On the other hand, Michalak said, “some significant problems remain including occasional harassment and excessive use of force by local government officials against religious groups in some outlying locations.”
Vietnam’s foreign ministry in a statement rejected Human Rights Watch’s “wrongful remarks.”
“In Viet Nam, the rights to freedom and democracy of all citizens including the rights to freedom of information and speech, freedom of religion and belief as well as freedom of non-religion and non-belief are prescribed in the Vietnamese Constitution and law and guaranteed in reality,” it said.
“As in other countries in the world, violation of the law is to be dealt with in accordance with the law to protect the discipline and rule of law.”