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(New York) - Vietnamese authorities have detained, interrogated, and even tortured Montagnard refugees and asylum seekers who have returned to Vietnam from U.N. High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) camps in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government is violating an agreement with UNHCR, which is supposed to monitor returning refugees and ensure they are safe.

Drawing on eyewitness accounts and published sources, the 55-page report, “No Sanctuary:
Ongoing Threats to Indigenous Montagnards in Vietnam’s Central Highlands,” provides fresh information about ongoing religious and political persecution of Montagnards, or indigenous communities, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

“The Vietnamese government continues to persecute Montagnards once they are out of the sight of international observers,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community should oppose their forced return to the Central Highlands as long as the authorities continue to persecute them.”

Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. High Commission for Refugees to review its participation in promoting and facilitating voluntary repatriation, given the disturbing accounts of mistreatment of returnees, as well as weaknesses in UNHCR’s monitoring mechanisms. It also called on the U.S. government to keep Vietnam on its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for religious freedom violations, and urged Cambodia to continue to provide temporary asylum to Montagnards, in line with its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Vietnamese officials continue to force Montagnard Christians to sign pledges renouncing their religion, despite passage of new regulations last year banning such practices. Authorities in some areas restrict freedom of movement between villages – in particular for religious purposes not authorized by the government – and ban Christian gatherings in many areas unless they are presided over by officially recognized pastors.

More worrisome, the Vietnamese government persists in criminalizing peaceful dissent, unsanctioned religious activity and efforts to seek sanctuary in Cambodia, by arresting and imprisoning Montagnards who engage in those activities. The most harshly treated are evangelical Christians who belong to independent or unregistered house churches and supporters of a non-violent movement for the protection of, and greater control over, ancestral lands.

More than 350 Montagnards have been sentenced to prison since 2001, largely for peaceful political or religious activities. Most have been charged under Vietnam’s Penal Code with vaguely worded national security crimes. These include “undermining the unity policy,” “disrupting security” and “causing public disorder”. More than 60 Montagnards have been imprisoned after being forcibly returned from Cambodia, where they were seeking asylum.

The arrests are ongoing: during 2005 alone, at least 142 people – some of whom had been in pre-trial detention for as much as a year – were sentenced to prison terms of up to 17 years. This is more than double the number imprisoned during the previous year. At least 30 of those sentenced in 2005 had been arrested in Cambodia or near the border areas, whilst trying to seek asylum. They were apprehended by Cambodian police and turned over to Vietnamese authorities without having a chance to make an asylum claim with UNHCR. The report includes an annex listing Central Highland prisoners.

“Serious problems persist for Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and the Vietnamese government continues to gloss them over,” said Adams. “For those who think the problems are all in the past, they should think again.”

The report includes disturbing testimonies from Montagnards who returned to Vietnam in 2005 from U.N. refugee camps in Cambodia, but then “doubled back” to Cambodia after undergoing harsh treatment in Vietnam. They describe in detail being detained, interrogated and even tortured upon return to Vietnam. They also tell of being pressured to recant their religion and threatened not to report any abuses to international delegations and U.N. monitors.

Despite this, UNHCR has made repeated public statements that returnees are under “no particular threat or duress,” and that it has “no serious concerns” about the government’s treatment of them.

Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to allow UNHCR full and unfettered access to the Central Highlands, as well as private and confidential meetings with local residents and returnees. The government should also ensure that there will be no retaliation against those with whom UNHCR meets, or their family members.

“These eyewitness accounts make it clear that some returnees have been tortured and persecuted for their religious and political beliefs,” said Adams. “We have given this information to UNHCR. But it has continued to send people back without the unfettered and confidential access to returnees it needs to protect them properly.”

Returnees interviewed by Human Rights Watch gave precise accounts of serious threats and intimidation by Vietnamese authorities prior to visits by UNHCR monitors, who have often been accompanied by Vietnamese government officials and police, and are unable to meet privately with returnees. Returnees were warned by authorities not to say anything negative to UNHCR officials.

One returnee, who had been beaten and pressured to renounce his religion in police custody, told Human Rights Watch, “The UN … asked about any mistreatment, but I was too afraid to answer. I told them I had not been hit or threatened. I didn’t dare tell them I’d been sent to prison; if I told, [the police] would have beaten me.”

“Meaningful monitoring cannot take place in front of Vietnamese officials, or when villagers are threatened not to talk,” said Adams. “The UNHCR monitoring missions and the repatriation program are seriously flawed and need to be reconsidered.”

These testimonies, which were shown to UNHCR in January 2006, call into question the credibility of its monitoring of returnees and the assumptions on which the memorandum of understanding relating to repatriation is based: that returnees will not be persecuted and that UNHCR will be able to monitor the treatment of returnees to ensure that they are not harmed.

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