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(Washington, DC) - The police suppression of a peaceful protest in Ho Chi Minh City on July 18, 2007 is a vivid demonstration of Vietnam’s continuing intolerance for government critics and the limits it imposes on free expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today.

Hundreds of farmers from more than a dozen provinces in Vietnam had been protesting government land seizures outside Ho Chi Minh City’s National Assembly building for almost a month. Police tore down the protestors’ banners and signs, and took away some of the protestors on buses, according to eyewitnesses.

“The crackdown on this demonstration shows Hanoi continues to curtail people’s rights,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If Vietnam really has joined the community of nations, it should tolerate dissent, not crush it.”

Similar – although smaller – protests have been held in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in recent years, largely in response to local officials’ expropriation of farmland without properly compensating those dispossessed. This recent protest, like past gatherings, had been closely monitored by uniformed and plainclothes police since it began in the third week of June. At least one person had already been arrested for bringing food to the demonstrators prior to the protest’s dispersal. A smaller gathering raising the same issues had also come together in recent days in Hanoi.

Vietnamese authorities have a history of suppressing the rights of assembly and free expression for peaceful dissidents and protestors.

The government is likely to have broken up the most recent protest in part because prominent critics of the government and members of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) voiced support for the protest. Since joining the World Trade Organization and hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi in November 2006, the government has cracked down on its critics, arresting and sentencing dozens, including prominent religious figures, journalists, and scholars.

On July 13, a UBCV delegation visited the protestors and brought them food and money. On July 17, the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, the 79-year-old deputy leader of the UBCV, made a similar visit. This was a rare public appearance by Thich Quang Do, who has been under house arrest for 26 years.

“The Vietnamese government repeatedly says it’s committed to reform and the rule of law, yet it stops citizens from peacefully protesting about abuse by local officials,” said Richardson.

Human Rights Watch urged the Vietnamese government to respect the protesters’ rights to peacefully gather and air their grievances. These rights are guaranteed by the Vietnamese constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam acceded in 1992.

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