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(New York) — Protests in Vietnam’s Central Highlands turned violent as Montagnard Christians were beaten and some reportedly killed during Easter Week demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called for Vietnam to urgently open the region to diplomats and international observers, and for Cambodia to honor its obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention and stop forcing back Montagnards seeking asylum in Cambodia.

“The human rights situation for Montagnards in the Central Highlands has plummeted to a new low,” said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam’s policy of repression of Montagnard Christians is only fueling the unrest.”

The movement by indigenous minority Christians—collectively known as Montagnards—seeks to peacefully press for religious freedom and return of ancestral lands in the Central Highlands.

On Saturday, April 10, thousands of Montagnards from districts around Buon Ma Thuot, the provincial capital of Dak Lak province, attempted to enter the city to conduct five days of protests during Easter week. Clashes erupted when police used tear gas, electric truncheons, and water cannons to prevent the demonstrators from entering the city, and police arrested dozens of people. On Saturday night four tanks were parked on Highway 14, about eight miles from Buon Ma Thuot.

On Easter Sunday, villagers in Gia Lai province demonstrated in many district centers near their villages because police blocked them from protesting in Pleiku provincial town. Human Rights Watch received reports of demonstrations taking place on April 11 in numerous communes in Ayun Pa, Cu Se, and Dak Doa districts of Gia Lai. In one incident, police beat and arrested 26 Montagnards who were demonstrating in Nhon Hoa commune of Cu Se on Sunday; their current whereabouts are unknown. Further north, at 8 a.m. Sunday morning paramilitary police blocked the path of Montagnards from several villages in Dak Doa district, who were trying to go to Ha Bau communal town to demonstrate. When the villagers did not disperse, the police fired, reportedly killing one villager from Ring village and arresting two others.

“The Vietnamese government’s heavy-handed response is clearly backfiring,” said Adams. “We fear for the health and safety of those who have been arrested, as well as the large numbers who have been injured or are missing and unaccounted for.”

Human Rights Watch said it had received eyewitness reports of protestors being beaten to death on April 10 in clashes with the police and Vietnamese civilians at Phan Chu Trinh road outside Buon Ma Thuot city, as well as unconfirmed reports of police injuries and possibly some deaths.

Since last weekend, dozens, if not hundreds, of Montagnards are missing. Many Montagnards did not return to their villages after the demonstrations, knowing that police were there, ready to make arrests. Others have been arrested and their current whereabouts are unknown. Some may be wounded or dead. The provincial hospital in Dak Lak reported 40 injured people on Saturday night. Montagnards living near Buon Emap in Cu Mgar district, Dak Lak province reported that all of the men in Emap village disappeared the night of April 10. It is not known if they were arrested, or went into hiding.

“We are extremely concerned that so many are missing or being held incommunicado by the police, and about the possibility of torture and mistreatment,” said Adams. “The Vietnamese government should immediately allow independent observers into the region.”

The U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provides that law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force, and they may do so only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party, requires that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention, and that anyone arrested shall promptly be brought before a judge and informed of the charges against him or her.

Those Montagnards who were able to return home after the demonstrations say that their villages—and even their homes—are now full of police, who are prohibiting them from leaving their houses. They have not been able to go to the market for food, or to their farm fields. In Buon Ale A, a suburb of Buon Ma Thuot, an eyewitness said on Saturday night that she was afraid to leave her house because of the large presence of police and Vietnamese civilians armed with sticks, who lined both sides of the road. Four policemen are now stationed in her house, she said, with many more patrolling the village.

Steadily Intensifying Repression
During the last year, the Vietnamese government has increased its persecution of Montagnard Christians, particularly those thought to be following “Dega Protestantism.” This is a form of Evangelical Christianity banned by the Vietnamese government, which links it to the increasingly popular Montagnard movement for return of ancestral lands and religious freedom. Prior to the Easter protests, authorities had dispatched hundreds of additional police and military to the region—often placing police officers in the homes of villagers suspected of political activity or returnees from Cambodia—and established military checkpoints along the main roads.

For months now, strict restrictions have been placed on travel within the highlands, on meetings of more than two people, and on communication with the outside world. Possessing a hand phone to make international calls to report on abuses in the highlands brings the very real threat of arrest, and villagers suspected of helping people who are in hiding are subject not only to summonses to the police station for interrogation, but being beaten and having their homes ransacked by police officers.

Human Rights Watch said that the government crackdown on Montagnards intensified beginning in January 2004, with police surrounding villages and searching nearby coffee plantations—sometimes with dogs—to arrest Montagnards suspected of supporting the Dega church movement.

Human Rights Watch continues to receive credible reports of officials forcing Montagnard villagers to abandon Christianity and cease all political or religious activities in public self-criticism sessions or by signing written pledges. In March 2004, for example, Ede villagers from Dak Lak told Human Rights Watch that local authorities regularly convene mandatory public denunciation sessions on Sunday mornings, several times each month, in which villagers are forced to renounce Christianity and pledge loyalty to “Uncle Ho”. Human Rights Watch has also received reports of forced renunciation ceremonies and beatings of pastors in Kontum province in mid-March.

“The retribution against Montagnards for the unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 2001 was intensifying in the weeks before last weekend’s demonstrations,” said Adams. “The Vietnamese government has steadily increased its persecution of minority Christians.”

Hundreds of Montagnards in Hiding
Human Rights Watch estimates that several hundred Montagnards have gone into hiding during the last three years—plus many more since the weekend’s protests—in order to escape arrest, persecution, and physical abuse because of their religious and political beliefs. Some have been hiding in camouflaged dug-outs in the forest or coffee plantations, in holes under people’s houses, or, in at least one case, in a cave on a mountaintop. Local villagers provide food when they can.

The vast majority of the Montagnards who have fled their homes are unable to cross the nearby border to Cambodia to seek international protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Under pressure from Vietnam, since 2002 the Royal Government of Cambodia has closed the refugee camps in its border provinces and barred UNHCR protection officers from operating outside of Phnom Penh. Montagnards who make it across the border to Cambodia, but who are then detained, are promptly deported to Vietnam, where many are beaten, detained, or sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Human Rights Watch has received reports that at least 270 Montagnards were deported during 2003 from Cambodia back to Vietnam.

“The fact that so few refugees have been able to make it to Phnom Penh during the last year does not mean that the Vietnamese government has ceased its harsh practices against Montagnard Christians, or that bona fide asylum seekers are not in need of U.N. protection,” said Adams. “It simply means that Montagnards fleeing persecution in Vietnam are unable to cross the border and obtain UNHCR protection in Phnom Penh.”

Since last weekend’s demonstrations, Cambodian police in the provinces bordering Vietnam’s Central Highlands have been placed on high alert and ordered to expel anyone who tries to cross without proper documents. Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to allow UNHCR to identify and provide protection to those with a fear of persecution in Vietnam, rather than sealing the border and summarily deporting all new arrivals.

The Sweeping Operations
In the months leading up to last weekend’s demonstrations, hundreds of paramilitary police from unit 113 of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security had been conducting widespread “sweeping” operations throughout the Central Highlands to carry out arrests of Dega church.

Armed with assault rifles and electric shock batons, paramilitary police squads (canh sat co dong 113, or cong an noi bo) have been systematically tracking down dozens of Montagnards in hiding, focusing in particular on activists who use cellphones to make international calls to report on abuses.

In these police operations, security forces surround villages, farms, and forested areas where Montagnard activists or church leaders are thought to be hiding in order to conduct arrests. After cordoning off a village, prohibiting entry and exit, the security forces then enter the village. They search the homes of villagers suspected of hiding or feeding others, often destroying the houses and beating the inhabitants during interrogation. They then fan out with dogs into nearby fields and forests, searching for people in hiding.

In an incident on March 3, sixteen truckloads of police and soldiers surrounded four villages in Dak Doa district of Gia Lai province. They entered the villages and arrested five men, beating three of them severely with electric shock batons. The police forced one of the men to accompany them into the adjoining coffee fields and forest to identify others in hiding. Villagers reported being able to hear the cries of the man as he was being beaten and led away. Police then loaded the men into the trucks and drove them away. The whereabouts of all five men are currently unknown.

During 2003, at least 100 Montagnards were arrested in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of police officers beating Montagnards in detention, primarily with electric shock batons. Some were released after several days’ detention, while others remain in prison, awaiting trial and sentencing to prison. Human Rights Watch is aware of at least one rape of a young woman by police officers during three days’ detention in August 2003 at a district police station in Dak Lak.

During the last year, thirty-three Montagnards were tried and sentenced to prison for their religious or political beliefs or for trying to flee to Cambodia, bringing the total number of Montagnards imprisoned during the last three years to 124. Those who have been convicted have been charged under Vietnam’s penal code with “undermining the policy of state and party unity,” or having “illegally migrated abroad to act against the people’s authorities.”

Targeted in particular for surveillance, detention, and arrest are those suspected of supporting the Dega church movement for return of ancestral lands and religious freedom, launched in 2001 when thousands of Montagnards marched on the capitals of Dak Lak, Gia Lai, and Kontum provinces in the highlands.

The 2001 demonstrations were quickly quashed by the Vietnamese government, which dispatched tanks and elite troops to the region and arrested dozens of the protest organizers. The government now strictly bans rallies and church gatherings and keeps a close eye on those suspected of being political or religious organizers.

Recent police operations in which there appear to be no legitimate grounds for arrest or in which mistreatment has occurred include:

  • April 8, 2004, Dak Doa district, Gia Lai: Approximately 200 paramilitary police searched the forest near Nil Stream, Ha Bau commune. A group of ethnic Jarai men, some of whom had been in hiding for more than a year, fled to nearby rice paddies. The police surrounded the men, severely wounding many of them by shocking them with electric batons while the men were in the water. They arrested eight men, beating one of them, Ksor Hlun, in front of the whole village of Ring before driving the men off in a truck. Their current whereabouts are unknown.
  • April 1: Dak Doa district, Gia Lai: Soldiers surrounded Plei Sao village, chasing and arresting Ksor Amuk, who had been in hiding since July 2002. His current whereabouts are unknown.
  • March 24, Pleiku City, Gia Lai: Twelve security officials in three jeeps arrested Ksor Ngle, who had been in hiding since October 2002. They hit him with electric shock batons, handcuffed him, and drove him away. His current whereabouts are unknown.
  • March 24, Dak Doa district, Gia Lai: Seven jeeps carrying security officers surrounded a group of Montagnards hiding in the forest in Ha Bao commune. They arrested two men, Thup and Luan, whose current whereabouts are unknown.
  • March 18, Dak Doa, Gia Lai: Security officials summoned village chiefs in A’Dok commune to a meeting about local elections. Two of the village chiefs were held for several hours after the meeting. On their way home, security officials arrested the two men and asked them to reveal the names of Montagnards in hiding. One of the village chiefs was severely beaten and detained until March 23, when he was released.
  • March 14, Dak Doa, Gia Lai: Security officials issued summonses to nine Montagnards in Kueng Grai and Ring villages. They were interrogated for a full day about the whereabouts of other Montagnards thought to be in hiding in the area. Most were beaten during interrogation. One man, who refused to provide any information, was slapped on the face, kicked in the ribs, and then made to stand with his feet wide apart until 5 p.m., when he was sent home.
  • March 8, Dak Doa district, Gia Lai: On March 8 security officials arrested a Montagnard who had been in hiding, beating him unconscious with their fists and electric shock batons. The man was released on March 14.
  • March 6, Dak Doa, Gia Lai: Security officials arrested a man, whose name was on a list of Montagnards in the area possessing cellphones. The man’s current whereabouts are unknown.
  • February 15, Ea Car district, Dak Lak: Fifty police in two trucks entered the village of Buon Mtrong. They ransacked and destroyed a house owned by people suspected of helping to hide and feed Montagnards on the run. One man, who was hiding in a nearby coffee plantation, made a quick cell phone call to relatives in the U.S. to report that his group of four had fled. In a tape recording of the man’s panicked report, obtained by Human Rights Watch, he requested that the United Nations intervene with the Vietnamese government. “Now Vietnamese police and soldiers are everywhere in the Central Highlands. They have arrested and shot many people,” he said.
  • February 11, Krong Buk district, Dak Lak: Police ransacked a house and arrested four relatives of a Montagnard refugee resettled in the United States, including the man’s wife. “There have been six police in my house since September 2003, sleeping there, searching the house,” the man told Human Rights Watch. “Now I don’t know where my wife is. We have six children—now there is no one to take care of them.” The woman was arrested because she had a cell phone, which she used to call her husband.
  • February 10, Cu Se district, Gia Lai: Several hundred police surrounded Tot Bioc village, prohibiting villagers from leaving. They entered the village at dawn and arrested five men, including one with a hand phone who was trying to call for help. They searched every house in the village and completely destroyed five houses. An eye-witness who was able to make a quick phone call reported that the police were climbing up the electricity tower to inspect the area through binoculars and then fanning out with dogs to search the surrounding fields.
  • October 16, 2003, Buon Don district, Dak Lak: Police and soldiers based in Buon Cuor Knea village shot suspected Dega activist Y Hoang Buonkrong with an AK-47 at his mother’s house. After police took him to the hospital they reported he was still alive, although as of December 2003, family members had not been able to visit him, nor were they sure of his exact whereabouts. Afterwards authorities increased the number of soldiers in the village, with three soldiers posted in many houses.
  • October 9, 2003, Krong Ana district, Dak Lak: Three truckloads of police from unit 113 surrounded the home of Y Pho Eban, who had been in hiding, in Buon Ea Khit. Y Pho tried to flee, but was reportedly shot and arrested by the police, who took him to the provincial hospital. Police officers threw tear gas canisters into the house, and detained and beat Y Pho’s wife and sister. That same day, six villagers from another village, Buon Cuoi, were arrested on their way to a funeral in Buon Ea Khit. They were arrested when they went into a store to buy food and accused of purchasing supplies for Montagnards in hiding. The next day, October 10, security forces made a sweep in Buon Krang, also in Krong Ana district.
  • September 2003, Buon Don district, Dak Lak: District police detained and interrogated the wives of two refugee men in Buon Cuor Knea who have been resettled in the United States. Police told one of the women’s mothers that they arrested her because her husband was living in the United States and had made phone calls to her. Police accused the other woman of bringing food to Montagnards hiding in the forest.
  • August 22, Krong Ana, Dak Lak: At midnight thirty to forty police entered Buon Cue village to arrest several church leaders. Their wives shouted for help from neighbors. The police withdrew after clashing with a large crowd of villagers who gathered. The next day more than 100 police from unit 113 returned to the village, using water cannons, tear gas and electric batons in an attempt to contain the unrest. One villager, Y Kun Bdap, was beaten severely with an electric shock baton and arrested. The police remained in the village and the situation remained tense for the next three days.

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