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(New York and London) The Vietnamese government should immediately release Thich Tri Luc, a Buddhist monk who was arrested and forcibly repatriated to Vietnam after receiving refugee status in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today.

Thich Tri Luc, a member of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), is expected to be tried under Article 91 of Vietnam's Penal Code on charges of fleeing abroad in order to oppose the Vietnamese government. If found guilty, he could face life imprisonment.

Vietnamese officials had previously denied any knowledge of the monk's whereabouts after his disappearance from Cambodia in July 2002. His family did not know whether he was dead or alive until last month. Last week, however, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry told reporters that Thich Tri Luc was arrested in July 2002 at the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

"The case of Thich Tri Luc highlights so many of the abuses that the Vietnamese government routinely commits," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Harsh repression of a religious believer, the apparent abduction and incommunicado detention of a peaceful dissident, and complicity in violation of international refugee law are all part of a broader pattern in Vietnam. These practices must stop."

Thich Tri Luc fled from Vietnam to Cambodia in April 2002 to seek asylum after suffering years of persecution by the Vietnamese authorities. He was granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in June 2002. On 25 July 2002 the monk "disappeared" after being escorted by an unidentified man from the guesthouse where he was staying in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for an explanation from the Cambodian authorities as to how a refugee was apprehended and returned to Vietnam, the country from which he had fled persecution.

"Returning a refugee to a country where he faces persecution is a serious violation of the Refugee Convention," said Adams. Cambodia is a state party to the convention.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese authorities to allow Thich Tri Luc immediate access to his family, a lawyer of his choice, and United Nations officials. He is currently detained at a pre-trial detention center in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Apparent abduction from Cambodia by Vietnamese authorities and incommunicado detention of a Buddhist monk who has been recognized as a refugee is a new low for Vietnam's so-called justice system," said Ingrid Massage, director of Amnesty International's Asia and Pacific Program. "What happened to Thich Tri Luc shows Vietnam's flagrant contempt for the United Nations and international standards of justice. He should be immediately released."

Thich Tri Luc (secular name Pham Van Tuong), 49, has been a Buddhist monk for more than thirty years, and actively affiliated with the UBCV since 1992. He was persecuted, arrested, imprisoned, and placed under "pagoda arrest" in Vietnam during much of the last decade. He was first detained without trial and placed under indefinite house arrest in Vietnam in 1992 during a government crackdown against the UBCV for protesting against the treatment of Buddhists and calling for respect of religious freedom.

In November 1994, Thich Tri Luc was arrested again after he assisted in a UBCV flood relief effort in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. After a closed trial in Ho Chi Minh City in August 1995, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and five years probationary detention (a form of house arrest).

The trial led to widespread protests from governments and international organizations around the world. Thich Tri Luc was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, and the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for his immediate release and that of three other UBCV monks sentenced at the same time.

After Thich Tri Luc's release from prison in 1997, he was placed under house arrest in Ho Chi Minh City. He was required to report monthly to the security police, restricted from traveling, barred from residing in his own pagoda, and stripped of other rights as a citizen. When his five-year probationary period ended in February 2002, the official surveillance and persecution of Thich Tri Luc continued. Two months later he fled to Cambodia to seek political asylum.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch in June 2002, Thich Tri Luc wrote: "I have described the difficulties and mistreatment I endured under the Communist government. It became clear to me that there was no way for me to continue living in Vietnam. My rights and daily way of living were being trampled by the authorities. I knew I must flee across the border. With difficulty I was able to cross to a neighboring country on April 19, 2002. I was fortunate to make it to Cambodia, seeking freedom, whereas in Vietnam I was forced to live without safety under the harsh regime."

"I appeal to the superior monks of the UBCV and all monks and nuns in my country and overseas, as well as the international human rights organizations and the United Nations, to intervene and help me to obtain approval as a refugee. Please help a member of the Buddhist church who has just escaped from Vietnam's harsh yoke."

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