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(New York) - Cambodia’s decision to close its northeastern border with Vietnam to halt the flow of Montagnard asylum seekers comes amidst alarming new reports of mass arrests, torture, and increasing persecution of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, Human Rights Watch said in a 25-page briefing paper released today.

New testimony gathered by Human Rights Watch establishes the widespread and continued use of torture against activists, religious leaders, and individuals who have been deported or have voluntarily returned from Cambodia.

On January 1, Cambodian National Police Chief Hok Lundy ordered authorities in the border province of Ratanakiri to increase the number of border police in order to prevent Montagnard asylum seekers from entering. “The authorities have to convince the local people to be our spies in order to report how many Montagnards [enter Cambodia], to arrest them and send them back to Vietnam,” he said.

“The Vietnamese government’s mistreatment of Montagnards continues unabated,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Instead of closing its borders to asylum seekers, the Cambodian government should be working with the United Nations refugee agency to provide sanctuary to people escaping torture and arbitrary arrest.”

Human Rights Watch said that under Cambodia’s international treaty obligations, the Cambodian government must not return Montagnard asylum seekers so long as they face a serious risk of persecution upon return to Vietnam. Hok Lundy’s statements, which were tape recorded, make it clear that Cambodia is flouting its legal obligations.

During high-profile tours to the Central Highlands in December, top Vietnamese officials pledged to respect religious freedom and called on local officials to encourage “peaceful and happy” Christmas celebrations in Montagnard villages.

However, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, police were busy rounding up and arresting dozens of Montagnard Christians and detaining them at district and provincial police stations and prisons throughout the region. In Gia Lai province alone––one of five provinces in the Central Highlands––police arrested 129 people between December 12 and 24.

“Christmas was relatively quiet in the highlands,” said Adams. “That’s because hundreds of Montagnards were rounded up and spent the holiday in police detention.”

Many of those arrested during the Christmas crackdown were Montagnard house church leaders who were organizing Christmas gatherings in the villages. Others targeted for detention included the wives and even young children of men who had fled to Cambodia to seek asylum. Human Rights Watch said that police also arrested dozens of Montagnards suspected of being protest leaders or making contact with groups in the U.S. supporting demands for the return of ancestral land and religious freedom. The current whereabouts and treatment of most of the detainees is unknown.

A Mnong man from Dak Nong province, who was arrested in April 2004, said he was severely beaten several times by police officers trying to obtain the names of other activists. At the district jail, police officers pulled out one of his toe nails, beat him repeatedly on his thighs with a rubber baton, and boxed him in the face, knocking out one of his front teeth. They brandished an AK-47 rifle and threatened to kill him. He was then transferred to the provincial prison, where he was interrogated and beaten again:

They beat my head and used two hands to box my ears more than thirty times, until my face was bright red and my ears were bleeding. They kicked me in the chest with their boots. They wanted to squeeze out the information about the demonstrations.

First-hand accounts from Montagnards who have voluntarily returned to Vietnam since 2001 indicate that Vietnamese authorities treat returnees with intense suspicion. Some are placed under police surveillance and even house arrest upon return, or are regularly summoned to the police station for questioning about their activities.

On December 29, the Vietnamese government publicly accused 13 Montagnards who voluntarily returned to Vietnam last October from a Cambodian refugee camp of being spies that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “trained to create disturbances and then sent back to Vietnam.”

“These kinds of statements show a degree of paranoia that leads to persecution,” said Adams. “Instead of punishing those who flee for safety, the government in Hanoi must begin to deal with the causes of discontent, which are religious repression and widespread confiscation of the agricultural land on which the indigenous minority people depend for their livelihood.”

Meanwhile, Montagnard asylum seekers who crossed the border to Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province right before Christmas remain in dire straits. During the last week truckloads of Cambodian police and gendarmerie have been scouring the forests where the asylum seekers are thought to be hiding.

“It is absolutely imperative that the Cambodian government immediately grants UNHCR access to these people, or turns them over to UNHCR if government security forces apprehend them,” said Adams. “UNHCR and key governments must make it clear in no uncertain terms to the Cambodian government that asylum seekers must not be arrested and summarily returned to Vietnam.”

Cambodia is a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention, which prohibits the return of individuals facing a well-founded fear of persecution on political, religious, or ethnic grounds. Cambodia has an obligation to make individual determinations about the validity of asylum claims. Cambodia is also a party to the Convention Against Torture, which states in article 3 that, "No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

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