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The authorities are suspicious of many people, but mainly of Christian pastors, evangelists and church elders in all villages where there are Christian believers. They accused pastors and church leaders of planning Christmas celebrations in order to organize escapes to Cambodia. Then, since December they have seized many people in an extra-legal manner, coming under cover of darkness, without arrest warrants. Some people, after being beaten are interrogated non-stop for two or three days straight and then sent home.... Others, such as A.T., who was seized on February 6-until now his family has no idea where he is.

-Protestant church leader, Dak Lak, February 23, 2002

Towards the end of 2001, in response to increasing numbers of highlanders fleeing to U.N. refugee camps in Cambodia, the Vietnamese authorities began an organized effort to increase pressure on villagers to swear loyalty to the government and renounce their religion and politics.

Periodic detention or placement of people under house arrest continued to be reported in the highlands from September 2001 through early 2002. This often consisted of the temporary detention of large groups of refugees who had been forcibly deported from Cambodia, with the leaders or guides of the groups singled out for longer prison terms. Many evangelical Protestant leaders and church elders continued to be summoned throughout the year for interrogation or "working sessions" with the police, where they were questioned about their religious and political activities and ordered not to organize gatherings for religious services.

During and after the visit of Party Secretary Nông Dúc Manh to Gia Lai and Dak Lak in September 2001, eight Jarai were reportedly arrested in Chu Se district, Gia Lai. As of March 2002, their whereabouts were unknown.

Human Rights Watch received reports of additional arrests in September in Mang Yang district, Dak Lak, where local authorities arrested fifty-eight highlanders. They sent thirty-four to the district jail and the rest to the commune police headquarters, where they were ordered to perform labor and sign documents pledging to cease all activities with Kok Ksor and renouncing evangelical Christianity. As of March 2002 some of the detainees had not returned to their villages.442

Another round of arrests was reported in October and November 2001, when ten highlanders were detained in Dak Doa and Chu Se districts of Gia Lai, and in Dak Mil and Krong Pac districts, Dak Lak. Their whereabouts as of March 2002 were unknown.

In late January and early February 2002, Human Rights Watch received reports of numerous arrests. These included the detention of at least seven church leaders in Dak Doa district of Gia Lai and Cu Ebur, Buon Don, Krong Buk, and Cu Mgar districts of Dak Lak. Another eight highlanders were arrested on February 20 in Ea H'leo. As of the end of February, two had returned to their villages but the whereabouts of the rest was unknown.443

Human Rights Watch received reports through March 2002 that the Vietnamese authorities were continuing to ban large religious gatherings and pressure Christians to renounce their religion in many places, including Ea H'leo, Cu Mgar, Buon Don, Mdrak and Ea Sup districts of Dak Lak; Ayun Pa, Phu Thien, An Khe districts of Gia Lai; Dak Ha and Sa Thay districts of Kontum; and Lam Ha and Lac Duong districts of Lam Dong.444

As more highlanders fled to Cambodia, in September 2001 Vietnamese authorities started a new campaign, forcing the heads of households in many villages to sign documents to guarantee that their family members would not attempt to flee to Cambodia or participate in political organizing.

The Christmas Crackdown

In December 2001, MFI announced that thousands of highlanders would be conducting Christmas prayer vigils on December 24-25. On December 10, twenty minority church leaders from the Central Highlands were summoned to Hanoi, where they were warned against using religion to undermine national unity. The minority pastors were asked to publicly express support for the VCP's policies on religion and call for the maintenance of social order.445

During the third week of December, dozens of local "house church" leaders were rounded up and detained throughout the Central Highlands to prevent them from conducting Christmas services. More than 160 highlanders attempting to flee to Cambodia at that time were arrested and deported back to Vietnam.446 While many of the women subsequently returned to their villages, the whereabouts of some of the men was still unknown as of late March 2002.

Official efforts to thwart Christmas celebrations included the following:447

· On December 22, 2001 in Ea H'leo district of Dak Lak, local authorities summoned Protestant church pastors and elders. They were pressured to sign agreements not to conduct Christmas celebrations and told that gatherings outside their homes were illegal. Security police disbanded, disrupted or monitored Christmas gatherings in Ea Qui, Diai Giang, Ea Drang, and Ea H'leo commune town.

· On December 22 in Ayun Pa district, Gia Lai, commune and village police and a village chief apprehended a minority Christian, beat him, and made him do forced labor at the commune office. On December 24 and 25 the authorities went house by house to warn people not to gather for Christmas ceremonies outside their homes. The authorities in one commune summoned minority church leaders to attend a seminar on Decree No. 26 (concerning religious activities) on December 24.

· On December 23, soldiers and police burst into a church service in Phu Thien district, Gia Lai and accused the congregation of being "Dega Christians." The leader of the service, who was filling in for a church elder who had been arrested, was detained at the commune office for two days and interrogated.

· On December 23, security and traffic police and soldiers surrounded and disbanded a Christmas gathering in An Khe district, Gia Lai. Afterwards, church leaders were summoned by local authorities, who accused them of organizing illegal Christmas services. The church leaders were told that churches could no longer meet each week for worship.

· On December 23, district security police in Dak Ha district, Kontum, warned local Christians not to observe Christmas in groups. Several church leaders were summoned to sign pledges not to organize ceremonies.

· On December 24 in Kontum provincial town, police and government officials attempted to prevent people from entering a church, and videotaped the service. Three church leaders were summoned over the next two days for videotaped interrogation sessions with the district secretary and the chairman of the VCP Fatherland Front.

· On December 24 in Sa Thay district, Kontum, police entered the home of a church leader. They confiscated his Bible and interrogated and warned him against organizing any religious gatherings.

· On December 25 in Dakbla commune, Kontum, police and local officials detained a Christian who was traveling to the next commune. They confiscated his Bible, hymnbook and motorcycle on charges that he was illegally propagating religion. That evening police searched the homes of several Christians in the adjoining commune.

· On December 22, local officials summoned church elders from three communes in Mdrak district, Dak Lak and told them they were prohibited from organizing groups of people for Christmas ceremonies or church meetings. In one commune, church elders were pressured to sign pledges that they would no longer gather people in groups. On December 24 in the same district, local officials terminated a Christmas service.

· After Christmas 2001, authorities no longer permitted Christians to gather in a church in Krong No commune, Lak district, Dak Lak.

· In Lam Dong, authorities banned services in churches in three communes in Lac Duong district after Christmas, and restricted religious gatherings to no more than ten people. In early February 2002, the authorities issued a citation for a church meeting in the same district and confiscated seven Bibles and hymnbooks. The pastor was summoned for interrogation and church services were terminated from that time.

The One-Year Anniversary

As February 2002 and the first anniversary of the protests approached, extra benefits were given out in the highlands to commemorate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Cambodian and Vietnamese officials allowed some highlanders to freely cross the border to visit their relatives in the refugee camps at that time, deliver New Year's gifts, and encourage their relatives to go back to Vietnam.

Despite these gestures, highlanders interviewed by Human Rights Watch and Western reporters in February 2002 reported that the actual situation had not improved. They cited ongoing abuses including harassment of Christians, mistreatment of refugees from Cambodia, and a repressive police presence in the villages.448

During a government-organized press tour to the Central Highlands conducted in mid-February 2002, Jarai women wept as they told foreign journalists about ongoing violations and their fears of further reprisals by the government. "They follow us and watch us all the time," a Jarai woman told reporters in Chu Se district, Gia Lai on February 19, 2002. She said she feared that her husband, who fled to Cambodia after the protests, would be arrested if he returned to Vietnam.449 Another woman told reporters: "We tried to have a Protestant gathering and the government wouldn't allow it. The government doesn't accept our religion."450

Members of the first group of refugees who returned to Kontum on February 19 under a UNHCR repatriation program expressed concerns about their safety after their return.451 Another man told reporters that he was arrested and beaten by Vietnamese border guards and authorities in his village the previous year when he attempted to flee to Cambodia.452

A Jarai man and former FULRO supporter attempted to "self-repatriate" from Cambodia to Vietnam on February 14, 2002, together with his wife and four children, acting on his own, not under U.N. auspices. On his return to Vietnam, however, he found such repression in his village in Gia Lai that he immediately turned around and fled back to Cambodia.

"There were police and soldiers all over the place, and my relatives told me they had been there the whole past year," he told Human Rights Watch after reaching Cambodia again. The church in his village, which had been used every Sunday since 1995, had been closed. Villagers told him Christians suffered much more repression than before the demonstrations, with many regularly fined or called by police to do forced labor making fences or cutting grass at the commune center. Christians who had held positions in the government had been fired, he was told, and many Christians had been cut out of government rice distribution programs.

"All of these were new developments since the demonstrations," the man said. "My relatives warned me to flee immediately. They said the police had been looking for me ever since I first left."453

A Montagnard church leader summoned up the atmosphere in a note smuggled out of the Central Highlands at the end of February 2002:

Now the authorities have sent soldiers to various villages. They forbid Christians to meet for worship, or to read the Bible, or to pray before eating, or sing Christian songs. They forbid anything to do with Christianity. They are sowing confusion, suspicion and fear among the people.454

442 Human Rights Watch interviews with Mang Yang residents, October 13, 2001 and February 28, 2002.

443 "Report on the Situation in Dak Lak," February 23, 2002, written by a Protestant church leader who asked to remain anonymous. English language translation of Vietnamese document on file at Human Rights Watch.

444 "Report on the Protestants' Situation in Dak Lak Province," September 3, 2001, written by a Protestant church leader in the Central Highlands who asked to remain anonymous. "Central Highlands Christian Workers' Situation Reports, December 2001 through February 2002," written by Protestant church leaders who asked to remain anonymous. English translations of Vietnamese language documents on file at Human Rights Watch.

445 Agence France-Presse, "Communist Vietnam in Christmas warning to minority Protestants," December 12, 2001. Associated Press, "Vietnam Communist Party asks Protestants to help maintain political and social order in restive Central Highlands," December 11, 2001. Voice of Vietnam Radio, "Vietnam radio condemns western media's allegation on `lack of religious freedom,'" December 23, 2001, BBC Monitoring, December 24, 2001. Montagnard Foundation, Inc. Media Release, "Hundreds of Thousands of Montagnards to Join Christmas Prayer Vigil," December 2001.

446, "Vietnam Cracking Down on Christian Tribes in Mountains," January 28, 2002. Montagnard Foundation, Inc. Report and Media Release, "Torture, Arrests, Kidnappings of Degars [Montagnard] Hilltribe People who Celebrated Christmas in Vietnam in December 2001," January 2002. Human Rights Watch, "No Montagnard Repatriation Without Protection," January 15, 2002.

447 Information is from: "Central Highlands Christian Workers' Situation Reports, December 2001 through February 2002," written by Protestant church leaders who asked to remain anonymous. English translation of Vietnamese language document on file at Human Rights Watch.

448 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai villagers from Ayun Pa district, Gia Lai, February 19, 2002. Clare Arthurs, "First Vietnamese refugees return home," BBC News Online, February 19, 2002. David Brunnstrom, "Tearful minority women defy Vietnamese officials," Reuters, February 9, 2002. David Thurber, "Relatives worry as U.N. repatriates first group of Vietnamese refugees from Cambodia," Associated Press, February 19, 2002. David Brunnstrom, "Vietnam minorities say they still face hardships," February 19, 2002. Amy Kazmin, "Vietnam denies ethnic persecution," Financial Times, February 20, 2002.

449 David Brunnstrom, "Tearful minority women defy Vietnamese officials," Reuters, February 9, 2002.

450 "Relatives worry as U.N. repatriates first group of Vietnamese refugees from Cambodia," Associated Press, February 19, 2002.

451 David Brunnstrom, "Christian refugees fearful after return to Vietnam," Reuters, February 21, 2002.

452 Clare Arthurs, "First Vietnamese refugees return home," BBC News Online, February 19, 2002.

453 The man had escaped to Cambodia with his family before the February 2001 demonstrations because he had been tortured and imprisoned in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Ayun Pa district, Gia Lai, February 19, 2002.

454 "Report on the Situation in Dak Lak," February 23, 2002, written by a Protestant church leader who asked to remain anonymous. English language translation of Vietnamese document on file at Human Rights Watch.

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