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(New York) – Vietnamese authorities should immediately end their crackdown on religious activists and free 15 people detained for expressing their beliefs, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests, primarily targeting Catholic Redemptorists, are a new blot on the country’s already problematic record on freedom of religion.

The current wave of arrests began on July 30, 2011, when the police arrested three Catholic activists at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City as they returned from abroad. During the next seven weeks, the authorities arrested 12 more religious activists. So far, 10 have been charged with violating penal code article 79, subversion of the administration, which carries a 5-to-15-year sentence for “accomplice” and 12 years to life, or the death penalty, for those designated as “organizers” or those whose actions have “serious consequences.”

“These latest arrests demonstrate the Vietnam government’s hostility toward people who seek to practice their faith freely, outside government constraints,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities’ actions against these peaceful religious advocates are a telling indicator of Vietnam’s deepening abuses of human rights.”

Many of those arrested in the last two months are affiliated with the Redemptorist Thai Ha church in Hanoi and Ky Dong church in Ho Chi Minh City. Over the last six months, both churches have regularly held prayer vigils calling for the safety of activists in prison or in detention, including the legal advocate Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, the Buddhist Hoa Hao activist Nguyen Van Lia, the blogger Nguyen Van Hai (Dieu Cay), the blogger Phan Thanh Hai (Anhbasg), and the blogger Pham Minh Hoang. On September 25, the Ky Dong church held another vigil to pray for the 15 religious activists arrested in the last two months, as well as other prominent activists. The Redemptorists, formally known as the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, are a Catholic missionary congregation founded in Italy in 1732 that currently operate in more than 77 countries worldwide.

The arrests of the influential Catholic bloggers Le Van Son and Ta Phong Tan capped a police campaign of harassment, short-term detention, and interrogations against both bloggers related to their writings. On August 2, the morning of Vu’s appeals court hearing, Le Van Son traveled to the area near the People’s Supreme Court to express his support for Vu, and he was closely followed by police. The next morning police arrested him. Ta Phong Tan was arrested on September 5, six days after she posted an analysis of the illegality and arbitrary nature of Le Van Son’s arrest on her blog, dated August 30. Ta Phong Tan was awarded the prestigious Hellman Hammett prize on September 14 for her writings in the face of ongoing persecution.

Pastoral leaders at both churches report they suffer from regular police surveillance and harassment. On July 10, the immigration police at the Ho Chi Minh City airport prevented Father Pham Trung Thanh, the leader of the Redemptorists in Vietnam, from leaving the country to attend a religious meeting in Singapore, stating that he belongs to “the category of those who have not been allowed to leave the country” (thuoc dien chua duoc xuat canh). The police did not provide any explanation of why he has been placed in this category. Two days later, immigration police at the Moc Bai border checkpoint in Tay Ninh prevented another Redemptorist leader, Father Dinh Huu Thoai, from leaving the country. On July 19, Dinh Huu Thoai filed a lawsuit against the officials at that checkpoint for violating his rights, but the People’s Court of Tay Ninh dismissed it on September 26, ruling that the matter is “not under the jurisdiction of the Court.”

“Freedom of movement is a basic human right, enshrined in Vietnam’s Constitution and protected by international human rights covenants ratified by Vietnam,” Robertson said. “By preventing Redemptorist leaders from traveling abroad to attend religious events, the government is showing just how little the rule of law means in Vietnam.”

The most recent arrest occurred on September 19, when Ho Chi Minh City police detained Tran Vu Anh Binh as he returned home from a funeral at the Mother’s Savior Church in the city.

In the recent report on freedom of religion in Vietnam, the US State Department asserted that  “[t]here were continued reports of abuses of religious freedom in the country,” and added that “[t]here was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government during the reporting period.”

“Washington needs to publicly acknowledge that Vietnam carries out severe repression against religious dissidents and to press the government to release everyone being held for peacefully expressing the dictates of their conscience rather than the party line,” Robertson said. “Vietnam’s government should acknowledge that freedom of religion does not mean freedom to only behave in ways pre-approved by the government.”

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