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Vietnam: No Montagnard Repatriation Without Protection

(New York) -- Ahead of tripartite talks in Phnom Penh on the status of Vietnamese ethnic minority asylum seekers in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch today called on all parties to ensure that the rights of individuals fleeing persecution are fully protected.

On January 21, Cambodia, Vietnam and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will meet to discuss the parameters of a possible repatriation program for some 1,000 indigenous minority asylum seekers from the Central Highlands of Vietnam, collectively known as Montagnards, who are currently sheltered in Cambodia.

"The Vietnamese government has made access to the Central Highlands difficult, but everything we know suggests that it's still not safe for Montagnards in Cambodia to go home," said Joe Saunders, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "There is substantial evidence that the government's crackdown in the Central Highlands is systematic and ongoing."

Recent information obtained by Human Rights Watch shows a relentless government campaign in the Central Highlands against Montagnards, particularly those following Evangelical Christianity and those who participated in unprecedented land rights demonstrations that took place in the highlands in February 2001. As recently as late December 2001, dozens of Montagnard Christians were rounded up and arrested while trying to organize Christmas ceremonies and prayer services. On December 28, Cambodian authorities in Mondolkiri province deported 167 Montagnards, who had fled across the border from Vietnam. While some of the women in the group have subsequently been returned to their villages, many of the men are still missing.

"No one should be returned to Vietnam against their will or until independent monitors are in place in the highlands to ensure that there are no reprisals," said Saunders. "And even if a repatriation agreement is achieved and some people decide to go home, this should not trigger the closure of the UNHCR camps in Cambodia for those who remain, nor bar the provision of asylum to others continuing to flee persecution in Vietnam."

Since the February 2001 protests, human rights violations against Montagnards have included destruction and closure of ethnic minority churches, bans on public gatherings, travel restrictions, official pressure on Christians to abandon their religion under threat of legal action or imprisonment, and the arrest and mistreatment of returnees from Cambodia. Dozens of Montagnards who participated in the February 2001 protests have been arrested over the last year, with more than thirty given harsh prison sentences in trials conducted between September and November 2001.

Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to cease the arbitrary arrest, surveillance and harassment of Montagnards suspected of participating in last February's demonstrations, stop its persecution of Montagnard Christians, and release all Montagnards imprisoned for peaceful expression of their religious and political views. In addition, Human Rights Watch urged Vietnam to allow unhindered access to the highlands by UNHCR, journalists, diplomats and independent human rights monitors.

Human Rights Watch also called on the government of Cambodia to continue to uphold its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention by providing temporary asylum to Montagnards fleeing Vietnam, regardless of whether any UNHCR-endorsed
repatriation commences, and to put an end to forced returns of asylum seekers.

The first round of tripartite repatriation talks, conducted in July 2001 in Hanoi, broke down after Vietnam refused to allow the UN to have unrestricted access to the Central Highlands to monitor the repatriation. The Vietnamese delegation reportedly also questioned the need for any repatriation program to be voluntary, charging instead that the Montagnard asylum seekers were illegal immigrants in Cambodia.

The main indigenous minority groups affected by the crackdown in the Central Highlands provinces of Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Kontum, and Lam Dong include Jarai, Ede, Pnong, Bahnar, Stieng, and Koho.

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