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(New York) - As Vietnam prepares to host the United Nations Day of Visak next week, one of the most sacred days for Buddhists, the government should cease the persecution, harassment and imprisonment of Buddhists and other independent religious groups, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 400 people remain behind bars in Vietnam for their peaceful religious or political activities.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights covenants, Vietnam must respect freedom of religious belief and worship.

“It is a travesty that Vietnam has been allowed to host a major international Buddhist celebration while its state policy is political control of every religious organization –Vietnam continues to systematically imprison and persecute independent Buddhists as well as followers of other religions,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “All members of the United Nations must respect freedom of religious belief and worship. Vietnam, now a member of the Security Council, should be exemplary – not among the worst – in this regard.”

Human Rights Watch also urged the United States to reinstate Vietnam on its global blacklist of countries that violate the right to religious freedom.

Repression of Buddhists

Visak, celebrated by millions of Buddhists each year, commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. This year’s Visak celebration, which has been recognized as an international holiday by the UN since 1999, is expected to draw 3,500 delegates from 80 countries to Vietnam for a series of events conducted throughout the country from May 13-17.

The theme of this year’s UN Visak Day is “Buddhist Contribution to Building a Just, Democratic and Civil Society.” Yet Vietnam regularly imprisons religious activists who advocate for the government to uphold civil rights and religious freedom and implement democratic reforms.

The Visak celebrations fall one year after Vietnam courts sentenced nine Buddhists to prison terms of two to six years in May 2007 for “causing public disorder” under article 245 of Vietnam’s penal code. Four of the nine were convicted after protesting the imprisonment of Hoa Hao Buddhists in 2006 in Dong Thap province. While Hoa Hao Buddhism is an officially recognized religion in Vietnam, many members strongly resist official pressure to affiliate with the government-appointed committee that oversees Hoa Hao affairs. Two Hoa Hao Buddhists self-immolated in 2005 to protest religious repression and detention of their leaders.

The remaining five sentenced in May 2007 are Theravada Buddhist monks who are members of an ethnic minority group known as Khmer Krom in Soc Trang province. The five were convicted for their participation in a half-day peaceful protest earlier in the year when more than 200 Khmer Krom monks demonstrated for greater religious freedom.

Leaders of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) have been imprisoned or detained under pagoda arrest for many years for appealing for the government to respect human rights and cease its interference in religious affairs. Once the largest organization of Buddhists in southern and central Vietnam, the UBCV has faced increased harassment and repression in the weeks leading up to the UN’s Day of Visak, with government officials reportedly trying to evict UBCV monk Thich Tri Khai from his pagoda in Lam Dong province in late April in order to control it during the Visak celebrations.  

Repression of other religious groups

Authorities harshly suppress most mass public protests, with the most recent crackdown taking place in April 2008 in the Central Highlands against a wave of demonstrations by Montagnard Christians in Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces. The Montagnards – many of whom belong to independent house churches – were calling for release of Montagnard prisoners, land rights, and religious freedom. Police and soldiers forcefully dispersed the protesters and sealed off many villages, particularly in Ayun Pah, Ia Grai and Cu Se districts of Gia Lai, to prevent the demonstrations from spreading further. Dozens of protesters were arrested.

Even members of churches officially recognized by the government are starting to publicly air their grievances. In March 2008, the government-authorized Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam released a rare public appeal calling on the government to cease its discrimination against Christians, stop interfering in the church’s internal affairs, and return confiscated church properties. Earlier this year, hundreds of Roman Catholics – one of the larger officially recognized religions in Vietnam – conducted unprecedented prayer vigils in Hanoi to demand the return of church property confiscated by the government.

US urged to reinstate Vietnam on religious freedom blacklist

Human Rights Watch joins the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a governmental body created by Congress, in urging the United States to reinstate Vietnam’s designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) for religious freedom violations. The United States, which designated Vietnam as a CPC in 2004, lifted the designation from Vietnam just days before President George W. Bush’s visit to Hanoi in November 2006.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 1, the USCIRF maintained that the State Department’s decision to remove Vietnam from the CPC list in 2004 was premature:

“A commission delegation traveled to Vietnam in October 2007 and found that progress in improving conditions for religious freedom has been very uneven: improvements for some religious communities do not extend to others; progress in one province is not similarly realized in another; national laws are not fully implemented at the local and provincial levels; and there continue to be far too many abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, including the imprisonment of individuals for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to release people imprisoned for peaceful religious or political activities and end restrictions on independent religious organizations who choose not to affiliate with the officially authorized religious organizations under the control of the government.

“Independent religious groups should be allowed to freely organize and manage themselves, conduct religious activities, and even engage in peaceful public protests,” said Pearson. “Vietnam’s respect for human rights and religious freedom has sharply deteriorated since the US removed it from its blacklist of religious freedom violators and Vietnam’s subsequent acceptance into the World Trade Organization.”

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