(New York) - The Vietnamese authorities should immediately lift any restrictions on the liberty of Buddhist monk Tim Sakhorn, who was released from prison in Vietnam on June 28, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. Sakhorn’s whereabouts are unknown. He was last seen in the company of government officials.
On June 30, 2007, authorities in Cambodia arrested and defrocked Sakhorn and sent him to Vietnam. On November 8, 2007, a criminal court in An Giang province sentenced Sakhorn to one year of imprisonment on charges of “undermining national unity” under article 87 of Vietnam’s penal code. Sakhorn reportedly had no legal representation during his trial. Human Rights Watch said that the politically motivated prosecution of Sakhorn was a thinly veiled attempt by the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments to stop peaceful dissent by the Khmer Krom minority in both countries.
“While his release from prison is welcome, as a peaceful activist and human rights defender, Tim Sakhorn should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sakhorn should now be able to go where he wants, when he wants, but it is not clear that he is able to do so.”
Sakhorn, 40, a member of the Khmer Krom ethnic minority group that lives in both southern Vietnam and Cambodia, had been a monk at a Buddhist pagoda in Takeo province, Cambodia, for 17 years. A member of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation, a US-based advocacy group, Sakhorn had actively promoted the rights of Khmer Krom people and provided shelter in his pagoda in Cambodia to Khmer Krom migrants and asylum seekers from Vietnam.
Upon Sakhorn’s release from prison on June 28, government officials escorted him to his birthplace in An Giang province, where the authorities had organized a welcome party for him. Local officials reportedly offered Sakhorn a plot of land and a large house in An Giang as an apparent incentive to remain in Vietnam. Villagers who met Sakhorn said he was dressed in civilian clothes, not monks’ robes, and appeared healthy. After only a few hours in his village, however, villagers reported that government officials escorted Sakhorn away, reportedly to Ho Chi Minh City.
“Now that Tim Sakhorn has been released from prison, the Vietnamese government should fully restore his freedom,” Adams said. “He should be able to travel freely and to meet his friends and family members in private. And the Cambodian government should publicly confirm that he is free to return to Cambodia, where he is a citizen.”
Sakhorn was born in southern Vietnam but had lived in Cambodia since 1978, when he and his family fled border fighting between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces. Like other members of the Khmer Krom minority living in Cambodia, Sakhorn and his family were recognized by the Cambodian government as Cambodian citizens. In 2002, Sakhorn was promoted to abbot of Northern Phnom Den Pagoda in Takeo - a position that only Cambodian citizens can hold - by Cambodia’s Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, Tep Vong.
Cambodian authorities defrocked Sakhorn in Takeo provincial town on June 30, 2007, on Tep Vong’s orders for allegedly violating Buddhist rules by “harming the solidarity” between Cambodia and Vietnam and using his pagoda to disseminate propaganda. After his defrocking, Sakhorn was forced into a car attached to the Cambodian Ministry of Interior and sent to Vietnam, where Vietnamese police arrested him for “illegal entry.” Documents were later produced stating that Sakhorn had “volunteered” to return to Vietnam.
Newspaper accounts in the government-controlled press in Vietnam stated that Sakhorn had distributed bulletins and videos about Khmer Krom history and politics, “incited” Khmer Krom people in Vietnam to file complaints and demonstrate about confiscation of their land, and served as a representative in Cambodia of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation.
In the months preceding Sakhorn’s arrest, government authorities in both Cambodia and Vietnam had become increasingly uneasy about a number of peaceful protests conducted by Khmer Krom monks and farmers in both countries calling for greater religious freedom and land rights. Protesters also called for the release of five Khmer Krom Buddhist monks imprisoned in Vietnam after a peaceful demonstration in Soc Trang, Vietnam, in February 2007.
Sakhorn’s deportation to Vietnam was in violation of the Cambodian Constitution and Nationality Law, which state that Khmer citizens shall not be arrested and deported to any foreign country unless there is a mutual extradition treaty, which does not exist between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Human Rights Watch said it feared that Sakhorn may be pressured or forced to return to his birthplace - not his pagoda - and placed under house arrest and police surveillance, like other imprisoned dissident monks in Vietnam, such as those from the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Upon their release from prison, political and religious prisoners in Vietnam are sometimes placed under house arrest, or “probationary detention” (quan che), for periods of one to five years, under article 38 of the criminal code. During that time they are placed under the supervision and “re-education” of local officials and deprived of certain rights, such as the right to travel, vote, or preside over religious organizations.
“Tim Sakhorn’s arrest and deportation were totally unjustified,” Adams said. “He should not have been imprisoned for simply promoting people’s rights or being in contact with an international advocacy organization. Now, ensuring that he is completely free is the priority.”