Background Briefing

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II. Recent Arrests and Harassment

The latest round of arrests spiked in November and December 2004, as Vietnamese authorities arrested more than 200 Montagnard Christians in the highlands.  It is unknown what those arrested were charged with.  As in previous government crackdowns, Human Rights Watch is concerned that many were arrested because of their religious activities, their complaints about land rights, or their contacts with Montagnard advocacy groups overseas.  Those who end up being sentenced to prison terms will likely be charged with “national security” crimes, such as “undermining the policy of state and party unity” (article 87 of Vietnam’s Penal Code) or “undermining public security” (article 89).

Human Rights Watch has received credible information about the arrests of 144 people in the Central Highlands, primarily in Gia Lai province, between December 12 to 24.6  For that two-week period in Gia Lai province alone, Human Rights Watch has recorded the names of 129 people who were arrested.  Mostly men, they range in age from seventy-five to nineteen years of age.  They include eighty-five people arrested in Cu Se district, fourteen in Dak Doa, thirteen in Cu Pah, eleven in Ayun Pah, and six in Cu Prong.  Human Rights Watch also received reports of police sweeps and arrests in Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces.  For most of those arrested, their current whereabouts are unknown.

Arrests of Church Leaders and Suspected Dega Activists

In the lead-up to Christmas, government security personnel hunted down and arrested or threatened large numbers of Montagnard church leaders and suspected Dega church activists.  Authorities were apparently concerned that rather than organizing Christmas ceremonies, many Montagnards were planning demonstrations for Christmas or Christmas Eve.

Police operations in Dak Doa district, Gia Lai province during November and December provide an example of the crackdowns that took place:

  • In November, eight policemen were stationed in the homes of four villagers in Nglom Thung village in Ia Pet commune.  In Ha Bau commune, soldiers were billeted in the homes of several villagers in Kueng Grai village.  The police and soldiers pressured Montagnard church leaders and villagers in at least seven villages in the two communes to sign pledges renouncing their religion and agreeing not to demand their land back.  The villagers were warned not to organize Christmas ceremonies.
  • On November 26, police went to Kueng Grai village to search for a Christian layman who had collected 3.5 million dong (about U.S. $233) to buy food and supplies for a Christmas celebration.  He was detained in Dak Doa district town, where he was interrogated about the source and purpose of the money.  At dawn the next day a forty-five-year old woman and her son were summoned to the district town, where they were also questioned about the money.  All three were released that afternoon.
  • In a pattern documented by Human Rights Watch in the past, paramilitary police conducted coordinated “sweeping operations” in several areas in Dak Doa, in which they surrounded and searched villages and nearby farm fields for activists thought to be in hiding.  On December 12, for example, paramilitary police surrounded and raided two villages in Ia Pet commune at 4:00am, arresting three people.  At dawn on December 19, police surrounded four villages in A Dok commune, arresting four men.  Like many others arrested in December, the current whereabouts of seven who were arrested are currently unknown.
  • The next day at dawn, December 20, police raided two villages in Ha Bau commune and arrested two men who were organizing Christmas celebrations.  One was the leader of a Christian youth group in Plei Sao village.
  • That same day district policemen handcuffed and arrested the Christian layman from Kueng Grai who had been detained in November for raising funds to hold a Christmas celebration.  His current whereabouts are unknown.

In Mang Yang district, Gia Lai authorities summoned twenty-seven Montagnard Christians from seven villages to the district police station on November 4.  The men, ranging in age from twenty-four to fifty-four years of age, were pressured to sign pledges to renounce Christianity, stop asking for their land back, and cease all activities with Montagnard groups in the United States.  After two days in detention they were allowed to return to their villages.  Later that month, however, many of the twenty-seven Christians fled their homes and went into hiding after district police arrested one of the villagers because he had a hand phone, which he was using to report abuses to Montagnard groups in the United States.

In a letter smuggled out of Vietnam in November, a Christian pastor in the Central Highlands described increasing confrontations between villagers and bo doi, or soldiers.  Tensions were running particularly high in Duc Co district of Gia Lai bordering Cambodia, he wrote, where village land has been confiscated to make way for plantations owned by the defense department.

“The situation is getting worse,” the pastor wrote.  “I am very concerned about the lives of the Jarai people living in this area. …The bo doi are really watching this area closely.”  Hundreds of Montagnards had attempted to flee to Cambodia. Those who were intercepted were “savagely beaten.”  In mid-November, eight people were arrested in Cu Se district as they tried to flee.  According to the pastor, “Two of the eight were so badly beaten we didn’t know if they would live or not.”

Detention of Families of Refugees

Many Montagnard refugees in the United States, as well as more recent arrivals living in UNHCR shelters in Cambodia, have reported that members of their families––including wives and children––have been arrested and detained by Vietnamese security personnel.7

A Jarai church leader from Ayun Pah district, Gia Lai, who fled to Cambodia in August 2004, told Human Rights Watch that his wife and four children were arrested in November.  After three days of interrogation at the commune police station, they were sent to the district headquarters, where they were detained for several more weeks.8

They threatened my wife.  They said, ‘Your husband is a traitor because he crossed the border to Cambodia.  You still work on the church committee and practice your religion.  That’s why we are detaining you.’

According to the church leader, prior to her arrest, village authorities had regularly made his wife stand in front of village meetings in which others were warned not to follow her family’s “evil ways” because her husband fled to Cambodia and she continued to practice Christianity.

Another man said his wife, six-month-old baby, and three nieces were arrested just before Christmas in Cu Pah district, Gia Lai.  “They arrested my wife because I fled to Cambodia,” he said.  “I don’t have any idea how long they will hold them. If I go back to Vietnam, my wife will be free.”  While he stated that he feared arrest himself if he returned, his comment illustrated the government’s long-held strategy of detaining or imprisoning family members of dissidents or rebels in hiding as a way to punish the rebels or pressure them to return home.

The same pattern was reported in Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces.  Among those arrested in December were two Ede men from Cu Jut district in Dak Nong who have relatives now in the United States (arrested December 14), and two Ede women arrested on December 19, in Ea Bar district, Dak Lak, both of whom are wives of men resettled in the United States.  Also in December, police in Krong Buk district, Dak Lak, arrested a woman whose husband now lives in the United States.  She came under extra suspicion because she had a hand phone.

Mistreatment of Returnees from Cambodia

Some of the refugee arrivals in Cambodia during 2003 and 2004 included people who had previously sought protection in the refugee camps in Ratanakiri or Mondolkiri, but voluntarily opted to repatriate in 2002, when there was pressure from the Vietnamese government on refugees to do so.  Few of the returnees were prepared for the harassment, surveillance, and intimidation by authorities that they encountered when they arrived back in their home villages.

First-hand accounts from Montagnards who have voluntarily returned to Vietnam since 2001 indicate that Vietnamese authorities treat returnees with intense suspicion.  Some are placed under police surveillance and even house arrest upon return, or regularly summoned to the police station for questioning about their activities.

An indication of the government’s mistrust of returnees was an article published in a government-controlled newspaper, An Ninh The Gioi (World Security), on December 29.  It stated that thirteen Montagnards who voluntarily returned to Vietnam in October 2004 from a Cambodian refugee camp were spies that UNHCR “trained to create disturbances and then sent back to Vietnam.”

In another case, a young Ede man voluntarily returned to Vietnam from a refugee camp in Cambodia, along with forty-five other refugees, on March 15, 2002. He had been told that his father, who had been sentenced to eight years in prison because of his involvement in the 2001 demonstrations, would be released from prison if he returned.  That never happened.

When I got home, my mother was very worried.  She asked me why I came back.  ‘They arrested your father,’ she said. ‘Do you want them to arrest you too?’ 

He was able to visit his father in prison only once––for fifteen minutes––before his father was moved to a remote prison in the north.  His father’s body was swollen, the young man said, either from illness or from beating.

I met him in the visitor section of the prison, with a wire grill separating us.  He asked my why I came back.  I told him I came to get him released.  He said I should know the law of Vietnam, the way things operate there.  He said I was ignorant.  He told me to be very careful, and protect myself, or they would imprison me too.  He couldn’t say too much because we only had fifteen minutes.

The situation in his home village was very different than when the young man first left, he said.  “The repression was more harsh.”  Police were stationed in the village and even in his house.  “Not all houses had police living there, like mine,” he said.  “Those suspected of doing political work, and returnees from Cambodia, had police.”

People could not leave the village unless someone guaranteed to the local authorities that they would return.  Villagers could not talk together in groups of more than two people at a time, or risk being summoned to the commune center for questioning about whether they were discussing politics.  Religion was tightly controlled.  “We could practice religion only in our home, and they monitored and listed to us,” he said.

The young man was summoned to the commune for interrogation three times.  The first time was after he went to visit a friend who was also a returnee from the refugee camp.  He was detained and held for four hours by the police, who asked him why he was meeting with others.

They threatened me when I didn’t respond.  They grabbed my shirt and yelled at me:  ‘Your father is in jail––do you want to go, too?’  I was afraid.  My mother and brother didn’t know where I was.  They didn’t know I had been arrested.  The police had me sign a pledge acknowledging that if there was a problem in the future, the authorities would arrest me and put me in prison.  After I signed, they took the document away.  Then I was allowed to go home.

A month later, the young man’s mother was arrested and detained for fifteen days.  “They arrived at 6 am in a Soviet jeep and arrested her.  They interrogated her, asking her what political movement she was in.  She hadn’t done anything to provoke arrest.  If there’s even a little mistake, they immediately arrest.  She was kept in a single cell in Buon Ma Thuot the whole time.”

Then three months later, security forces arrested all of the church elders in his village.  “One by one they were summoned, right before I fled,” he said.  “They would summon them all the time, for ten days, twenty days, or thirty, and then let them return.”

Warned by a friend who worked for the commune authorities and had seen his name on a list of twelve people slated for imminent arrest, the young man fled a second time for Cambodia.

Police Posted in Homes

Another Montagnard man left a refugee camp in Cambodia in March 2002 and returned to Vietnam.  “The Vietnamese government promised there would be no punishment or recrimination if I returned. I decided to go because I wanted to see my parents again,” he said.

But three days after he got home, his village was full of armed policemen, including five guarding his house alone.  “They were afraid we would do another demonstration so they watched us constantly,” he said.  “Everyone was very worried––my aunt told me to go back to Cambodia.  Everyone said I should have stayed in the refugee camp.”

Special police––he thinks they were from Hanoi––would enter his house five, six or even ten times a day without notice.  At first he was able to leave the village to go work at his farm fields, but within a couple of weeks he was not allowed to leave his village at all.  He saw the police regularly ordering the religious leaders in his village to the commune or the district for questioning.  “The elders said that the authorities ordered them not to follow our religion because it was the reason that the people had opposed the government.”

Meanwhile the people in his village were becoming increasingly anxious because of the increased number of security forces who had been assigned to his village since his return.

My relatives and my neighbors were unhappy when I came back because there were so many police and soldiers in our village.  They worried about my safety each time I was called to the police.  They warned me not to eat or drink anything while I was at the police station.

Prior to his repatriation, UNHCR officials had visited his village to assess whether it was safe for refugees to return.  But he learned from the people in his village that local officials had rigged the visit:

One day before UNHCR came, [the local authorities] had a meeting to instruct the villagers.  When UNHCR came, there were many soldiers and undercover police around.  When they met with UNHCR, the only ones who spoke were the chief of the commune and the chief of the village.  They were surrounded by undercover police and soldiers watching them.

A month later he was summoned to the police station in the provincial town, even though after his return to Vietnam he had not dared to engage in political activity.  “The police followed me everywhere, all the time,” he said. “I was afraid and did not do political activity.”

Nonetheless he continued to be summoned for interrogation once a month.

They would ask me different questions.  Why do you oppose the Vietnamese government.  You were born here, why did you flee from Vietnam?  Who are the political leaders, who were the people who guided the refugees to Cambodia?

The last time he was interrogated, in September 2002, the police jabbed him in the ribs with an electric baton to threaten him.  The next month, before he was summoned, he fled to Cambodia again.

I saw I couldn’t live in Vietnam––I had too many political problems.  When I returned to my village from Cambodia, the government didn’t believe I came for my family.  They thought I came to re-awaken the political movement.  I was afraid.

Threat of Arrest

Another young man who voluntarily returned to Vietnam from the refugee camp in Cambodia in 2002 said that upon arrival in his village he was immediately placed under surveillance, restricted from traveling freely, and constantly summoned for questioning and verbal abuse by the police.

The Vietnamese police came to the camp [in Cambodia] and told me if I went back [to Vietnam] they would release the ethnic minorities in jail.  Instead, as soon as I got back to my village––the very first day––I was interrogated by four or five policemen.  They said I believed in “Tin Lanh” (Christianity).  It’s an American religion, not a real religion, they said.  It’s the religion that incites you to oppose the government.

He was only able to meet his mother, who lived in a village twenty kilometers away, once or twice after returning from Cambodia.  Afterwards, he was not allowed to leave his village.  He was summoned four times to the police station:

The first time they interrogated me.  Why do you oppose the Vietnamese government––do you think the U.S. will make a second war with Vietnam?  I didn’t dare answer.  They threatened me with their police baton when they were interrogating me.  They tried to get me to sign a pledge saying that I wouldn’t do anything to oppose the Vietnamese government, that I wouldn’t try to recruit others, I wouldn’t try to flee, and I wouldn’t make any complaint letter to the U.S. or international organizations about the government’s repression.

Eleven other refugees who returned from Cambodia at the same time as him were treated in the same way.  “After we got back, one by one the authorities summoned the returnees,” he said.

After his fourth summons, which he feared would result in his arrest, he fled to another village, where he hid in a coffee plantation for a year.  “There was no U.N. in my province––there was no one to depend on, so I had to flee. And in the end they didn’t do what they said they would––they didn’t let the ethnic minorities out of prison.”

He crossed to Cambodia in early 2003 and was able to make his way to the offices of UNHCR in Phnom Penh.

[6] It is important to note that the numbers of arrests cited here are likely an undercount. Information is extremely difficult to obtain from the Central Highlands, especially from Dak Lak province, where only a handful of asylum seekers have been able to make their way to Cambodia since the April 2004 protests.

[7]  These detentions mirror methods used by the Vietnamese authorities during the days of the FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte des Race Opprimées, or the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races) resistance movement in the 1980s, when authorities would imprison the wives of rebels in hiding, holding them in effect as hostages to force the men to return to the villages and surrender.  FULRO was an armed Montagnard resistance movement in the Central Highlands that died out in the early 1990s. 

[8] As of January 2005 the church leader, then in a Cambodian refugee camp, did not know whether his wife and children had been released or their current whereabouts.

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