(New York) - The government of Vietnam has stepped up its campaign of repression of indigenous Montagnard Christians, Human Rights Watch said today. The rights organization called on Vietnam to cease arrests, harassment and arbitrary detentions of individuals based on their religious or political views.

"There's been no let-up in the persecution of the Montagnards," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "While the Vietnamese government has acknowledged that it has made some mistakes in dealing with the unrest in the Central Highlands, it needs to back words up with action and cease the serious human rights violations there."

At least 30 Montagnards have been arrested in the Central Highlands since June. Targeted in the latest crackdown have been Protestant church leaders, land rights advocates, and individuals suspected of guiding asylum seekers to Cambodia. Dozens of Montagnards have gone into hiding, with current whereabouts unknown.

The unrest in the Central Highlands began in early 2001, when thousands of indigenous highlanders, collectively known as Montagnards, conducted peaceful demonstrations calling for greater land rights and religious freedom. In the aftermath of the demonstrations, Vietnamese officials sent thousands of police and soldiers into the region, where they arrested dozens of Montagnards. Approximately 1,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia to seek asylum.

The latest crackdown in the Central Highlands began in June, when local authorities in Vietnam arrested at least 11 Montagnards. This was followed by a second round of at least 20 arrests in late August and September, when Vietnamese state media reported the possibility of renewed unrest and protests in the Central Highlands. The reasons for the arrests, the charges, and the place of detention of the majority of those arrested have not been made public.

Since early August, between 10 and 30 police have been posted per village in many districts in Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces, often in the homes of church leaders or suspected land rights activists. Telephone lines have been cut. Authorities continue to
break up religious gatherings in the name of security, while pressuring Montagnards to sign loyalty oaths renouncing politics and religion.

Montagnard Christian pastors and elders have been singled out for increased surveillance and warned not to travel unless they have advance written permission. Gatherings of villagers for worship, weddings and funerals continue to be largely forbidden by local authorities.

"We urge diplomats, journalists, and aid groups to make urgent inquiries about the arrests with government officials in Hanoi, who should open up access to the Central Highlands to U.N. monitors and independent observers," said Jendrzejczyk.

Other recent incidents of repression of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam's Central Highlands include:

In late April, district authorities in Krong Pac district, Dak Lak began summoning a minority church leader for interrogation, accusing him of violating the government's Decree on Religion. They ordered him to disband his church, and threatened him with arrest if he continued to hold church services in his home.

Also in April, local authorities cut the electricity of several Ede Christian families in Ea Trol Commune, Phu Yen province, stating in a written order that they were implementing an order by the Party and the government to cut the electricity of Christians.

On May 6, district police and soldiers searched the home of a church leader in Krong Pac district, Dak Lak, confiscating 273 Christian books and bibles. The search warrant stated that the church leader had stored literature which has the purpose of resisting and overthrowing the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The church leader was summoned for numerous interrogation sessions over the next month and accused of violating the government's Decree on Religion.

Minority land continues to be confiscated. In one incident on April 11, a Montagnard Christian in Buon Ea Sup, Dak Lak resisted the plowing over of his land. He was bound and gagged by a local gang, including government officials.

On June 16, nine Montagnards were arrested in Dak Lak province and sent to the provincial prison in Buon Ma Thuot. Two other Montagnards were arrested in June in Cu Se district, Gia Lai and sent to T-20 prison in Pleiku.

In July, four Jarai were arrested in Breng I, Breng II and Cu A villages in Gia Lai province, near the Cambodian border, and in Cu Se district, Gia Lai.

In late August, three Montagnards were detained and beaten by police in Dak Doa district, Gia Lai. They subsequently went into hiding upon their release.

From August 18 through early September, at least 18 Montagnards were arrested in Dak Lak province, most of whose whereabouts are currently unknown, other than three who are known to have been sent to the provincial prison in Buon Ma Thuot.