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(New York) -- Vietnam's campaign of persecution against ethnic minorities known as Montagnards is increasing, Human Rights Watch said today, making public new documents smuggled out of the country's Central Highland region.

A nineteen-page briefing paper published by Human Rights Watch details recent events in the Central Highlands through March 2003 and provides English translations of previously unavailable documents, including several hand-written Montagnard testimonies on the crackdown, and two internal Vietnamese government directives.

"Despite Hanoi's statements of concern for its ethnic minorities, Vietnam is clearly escalating its repression of the Montagnards," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The United Nations and Vietnam's international donors must take a more active role in protesting and preventing such serious human rights violations."

Nine letters written by Montagnard church leaders in Dak Lak province detail ongoing human rights violations up to the end of February 2003. They describe beatings of church leaders by police and other officials, destruction of churches, official prohibitions on nighttime gatherings and travel outside of villages, and widespread confiscation of villagers' farm land by authorities.

Human Rights Watch has obtained original copies of official Vietnamese government documents issued in February 2003, describing ceremonies in which Montagnard villagers are forced to "Swear Brotherhood" (le ket nghia) with local party cadres in front of pictures of Ho Chi Minh. Local officials are instructed to coordinate with party officials to "step by step, eradicate out-dated and backward ways, and eradicate all illegal religious organizations."

To enforce the new directives, in February 2003 the Vietnamese government launched a fresh round of arrests of Montagnard Christians as well as those suspected by the government of seeking to flee to Cambodia or of supporting the Montagnard movement for greater land rights. Widespread peaceful demonstrations took place in the Central Highlands in February 2001.

Other documents obtained by Human Rights Watch show how government officials are forcing Montagnards to sign "voluntary" papers pledging to withdraw petitions opposing government confiscation of their land.

In March, Human Rights Watch received a handwritten list containing the names and thumbprints of 439 ethnic Montagnard Christian families (1,206 people) from Dak Lak province, Vietnam, who are requesting international protection in Cambodia. "Please have pity for us and rescue the Christian believers and help us receive back our ancestral lands," one of the petitions states. "Only those who have been persecuted have agreed to give their fingerprints below."

Hundreds of Montagnards have gone into hiding in Vietnam, unable to obtain asylum in Cambodia. On March 26, Vietnamese security police and soldiers shot at a group of Montagnards who had gone into hiding in the forest in Gia Lai province. Five people escaped, but two men were wounded and taken to the commune center, where one of the men later died. When his body was returned to his family, his skull had been severely crushed, apparently from additional beatings by security officers at the commune center. The whereabouts of the other man taken into custody are unknown. A third Montagnard was arrested and beaten on March 27, but then allowed to return to his village.

Since the beginning of 2003, more than 100 Montagnards who have tried to flee to Cambodia have been forcibly returned to Vietnam, where some have been arrested and beaten. More than seventy Montagnards are currently serving lengthy prison sentences in Vietnam for participating in protests or trying to flee to Cambodia since February 2001.

The Cambodian government, which last year sealed its borders to new refugee arrivals, announced this month that it plans to close the refugee transit center operated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh as soon as the final forty-two refugees are resettled.

"UNHCR's ability to protect and screen new refugees will be severely compromised if it is forced to close its refugee camps in Cambodia," said Adams.

Human Rights Watch called on Vietnam's international donors to insist that Vietnam cease its persecution against the Montagnards. Human Rights Watch also called on the Cambodian government to authorize UNHCR to immediately establish a field presence in Cambodia's border provinces, to re-open provincial refugee camps that were closed last year, and to provide protection and assistance to refugees from Vietnam.

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