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(Bangkok) - The Vietnamese government has intensified repression of indigenous minority Christians from the country's Central Highland provinces who are pressing for religious freedom and land rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 46-page report, "Montagnard Christians in Vietnam: A Case Study in Religious Repression," details the latest government crackdowns on these indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards. The report documents police sweeps to root out Montagnards in hiding. It details how the authorities have dissolved house church gatherings, orchestrated coerced renunciations of faith, and sealed off the border to prevent asylum seekers from fleeing to Cambodia.

Human Rights Watch found that special "political security" (PA43) units conduct operations with provincial police to capture, detain, and interrogate people they identify as political activists or leaders of unregistered house churches. More than 70 Montagnards have been detained or arrested in 2010 alone, and more than 250 are known to be imprisoned on national security charges.

"Montagnards face harsh persecution in Vietnam, particularly those who worship in independent house churches, because the authorities don't tolerate religious activity outside their sight or control," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "The Vietnamese government has been steadily tightening the screws on independent Montagnard religious groups, claiming they are using religion to incite unrest."

Human Rights Watch documented the abuses in the Central Highlands, which is off-limits to independent, international rights groups, through interviews with Montagnards who have fled Vietnam and reports in Vietnam's government-controlled media.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, one Montagnard described his treatment at T-20, the provincial prison in Gia Lai, after he was arrested for participating in a protest calling for religious freedom and land rights:

They questioned me at any time, even midnight. The police would get drunk, wake me up, and question me and beat me. They put me in handcuffs when they took me out for questioning. The handcuffs were like wire - very tight. They used electric shock on me every time they interrogated me. They would shock me on my knees, saying you used these legs to walk to the demonstration.

Sentenced to five years in prison for "violating national solidarity," he remains partially deaf from repeatedly being boxed on both ears:

They would stand facing me and shout: "One, two, three!" and then use both hands to box both of my ears at the same time. They would do this three times, the last time putting strong pressure on the ears. Blood came out of my ears and my nose. I went crazy from this. It was so painful, and also the build-up made me very afraid and tense.

The government says that Montagnards who belong to unregistered house churches outside the control of the official Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam are "Dega Protestants," which authorities allege is not a legitimate religious group but a cover for a Montagnard independence movement. Vietnamese law requires all religious groups to register with the government and operate under government-approved religious organizations.

Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to immediately end its systematic repression of Montagnards, allow independent religious organizations to conduct religious activities freely, and release all Montagnards imprisoned for peaceful religious or political activities. Until Vietnam improves its record on religious freedom, Human Rights Watch calls on the US government to reinstate Vietnam's designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for violations of religious freedom.

Using official Vietnamese media sources, Human Rights Watch documented the controversial practice of forced recantations of faith. Government officials have forced hundreds of Montagnard Catholics and Protestants to renounce their religion in public criticism sessions, violating internationally protected rights to freedom of religion and conscience. Those who resist and insist on their right to independent worship facing beatings, arrest, and imprisonment.

Provincial courts often hold "mobile trials" of people charged with national security crimes before hundreds of people, reinforcing the message not to follow unsanctioned religious groups.

"Freedom of religion does not mean freedom for state-sanctioned religions only," Robertson said. "Vietnam should immediately recognize independent religious groups and let them practice their beliefs."

While Protestant Montagnards have faced repression for many years, Catholic Montagnards have more recently become a target, particularly the "Ha Mon" Catholic sect, which started in Kon Tum in 1999. During 2010, officials charged that Montagnard exiles in the United States were manipulating the popular sect to undermine national unity. Forced renunciation ceremonies and public criticism meetings have been conducted in recent months in Kon Tum, Gia Lai, and Dak Lak provinces for Ha Mon followers, in which they are forced to confess to wrongdoings and to sign pledges to abandon the so-called "false religion."

"People in the Central Highlands who wish to worship in independent house churches risk public humiliation, violent reprisals, arrest, and even prison time," Robertson said.

The more than 250 Montagnards in prison or awaiting trial are charged with national security crimes such as "undermining national solidarity." Many former Montagnard political prisoners and detainees report that they were severely beaten or tortured in police custody and pre-trial detention. Since 2001, at least 25 Montagnards have died in prisons, jails, or police lock-ups after beatings or illnesses sustained while in custody, or shortly after being prematurely released by prison authorities to a hospital or home.

Examples of forced renunciations of faith and harassment of peaceful activists at public criticism meetings in the Central Highlands covered by Vietnamese state media in recent months include:

  • In November 2010, Bao Gia Lai, the newspaper of the Gia Lai province Communist Party, reported on the ongoing "Struggle to Eliminate Dega Protestantism" in Ia Grai and Duc Co districts of Gia Lai, where border soldiers were breaking up so-called "reactionary gangs" of Dega Protestants in the border areas and bringing them in for public criticism sessions.
  • In October 2010, Bao Gia Lai reported that 567 households related to Dega Protestantism were "renouncing" the religion in Krong Pa district, Gia Lai, with the commune chief making daily visits to pressure 15 households who eventually pledged to abandon their religion.
  • During September 2010, Cong An Nhan Dan (People's Police) newspaper reported that police in collaboration with local officials organized several public criticism ceremonies in Duc Co district, Gia Lai. In one session on September 29, 50 people from four villages in Duc Co district, Gia Lai, were summoned to be formally criticized in front of crowds of commune residents for having "disrupted security and order" during unrest at a rubber plantation on August 25, 2010. After admitting their wrongdoings, the report says, they pledged to abandon Dega Protestantism and other "reactionary" groups.
  • On July 12, 2010, Bao Gia Lai reported that 97 households, or 297 people, "voluntarily" abandoned Dega Protestantism in the villages of Tok and Roh, Chu Se district, Gia Lai.
  • On June 6, 2010, as part of an official public ceremony in Dak Mil district, Dak Nong province to begin a "mass movement to protect national security," Bao Dak Nong, the newspaper of the Dak Nong province Communist Party, reported, two men were brought forward to publicly confess to supporting Dega Protestantism and other "reactionary" groups.

Since 2001, thousands of Montagnards in Vietnam have fled harsh government crackdowns to Cambodia, where most have been recognized as refugees and resettled to the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Canada.

In December 2010, the Cambodian government ordered the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to close the Montagnard refugee center in Phnom Penh. With the center's closure on February 15, 2011, Montagnards seeking to escape repression in Vietnam are left with fewer options.

"Montagnards will continue to try to flee Vietnam as long as the Vietnamese government systematically violates their basic rights," said Robertson. "The Vietnamese government needs to end this repression immediately."

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