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(New York) — Fearing torture and arrest by Vietnamese troops, hundreds of Montagnards in the Central Highlands have resorted to hiding in village graves or pits dug in the forest, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper.

In a government crackdown following widespread Easter week demonstrations by Montagnards in April, hundreds of Vietnamese security forces, accompanied by armored vehicles, have been deployed to the Central Highlands.

An 11-page briefing paper by Human Rights Watch released today contains new eye-witness testimony from Montagnards in Vietnam and translations of handwritten reports by Montagnard church leaders in the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong.

“The Central Highlands are in a lockdown. Montagnards are unable to freely leave their villages, and they are threatened with violent reprisals if they try to relay news of the atrocities to the outside world,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Hundreds of demonstrators were wounded and many were killed on April 10 and 11 on key bridges and roadways leading into Buon Ma Thuot, the provincial capital of Dak Lak, and in commune centers in Gia Lai and Lam Dong provinces.

Vietnamese government forces, and civilians acting on their behalf, beat and killed dozens of Montagnards during the demonstrations. Thousands of people had gathered to protest confiscation of ancestral lands and religious repression, according to numerous interviews with inhabitants of the Central Highlands.

In response to an international outcry, in late April and early May the Vietnamese government organized highly controlled visits to the highlands by international media, diplomats, and U.N. agencies. Montagnards interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that Vietnamese officials prevented them from providing an accurate picture of events.

“No visiting delegation has been allowed to stray from a strictly controlled government itinerary. How then can they determine what happened?” Zarifi said. “Independent investigators must be immediately allowed unfettered access to the region so that those responsible for the casualties can be held accountable.”

Fearful of arrest and torture, many Montagnards have fled their villages and gone into hiding. In one area, people have resorted to hiding in graves by day. Montagnard graves can be two meters deep, with coffins of different family members stacked in one grave, leaving room for future generations’ coffins or—in this case—for people to hide.

Others are hiding in pits dug in the forest. Many of the villagers who had provided food and supplies to those in hiding have either been arrested or are confined to their homes, leaving many people without food or medical care.

Fleeing Montagnards are unable to seek refuge in Cambodia, which continues to deport all those who cross the border on the grounds that they are “illegal economic migrants.”

“It’s truly a desperate situation,” Zarifi said. “Many of the people who have fled the villages suffered broken bones and cracked skulls during the demonstrations, but they are out of food and in need of medical care. And they can’t cross the border to Cambodia, because they know they would be immediately arrested and sent back to Vietnam.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to immediately allow full and unhindered access to independent human rights organizations and U.N. special rapporteurs to investigate the reports of extrajudicial killings, human rights abuses and other violations of international humanitarian law in the Central Highlands.

The Cambodian government should immediately authorize the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance to refugees from Vietnam and it should reopen refugee camps in Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri provinces, adjacent to the Central Highlands.

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