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(New York) – Vietnamese authorities should immediately release the Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Nguyen Van Lia and drop all charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. His trial is scheduled for the morning of December 13, 2011, in the People’s Court of Cho Moi district, An Giang province.

Nguyen Van Lia, 71, is a longtime adherent of Hoa Hao Buddhism, a religious group often suppressed by the government, and the co-author of several Hoa Hao Buddhist religious instruction texts and books. He is charged with violating article 258 of the penal code for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state,” an opaque crime that could result in a sentence of up to seven years.

“All signs point to religious persecution in this case,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Nguyen Van Lia is mainly known for his advocacy of the Hoa Hao faith, and raising the oppression of this group with foreign diplomats. These are activities fully protected under Vietnam’s international human rights and constitutional obligations.”

He was arrested on April 24 with his wife, Tran Thi Bac Lon, on what appeared to be a trumped-up traffic violation as they drove to attend a remembrance ceremony for another deceased Hoa Hao follower. Authorities released his wife that night, but have detained him ever since and prevented his family from seeing him for five months after his arrest.

On a visit on November 30, Nguyen Van Lia’s family first learned he was being charged with violating article 258. The family has publicly raised serious concerns about the deterioration of his health. He has high blood pressure, has lost most of his hearing, and has several broken ribs from past injuries.

Nguyen Van Lia maintains his innocence. He told his family that the police tried to coerce an admission of guilt from him during interrogations and said that when he refused to sign a document prepared by the police, the officers used force to press his fingerprint onto the document.

“It is inhumane to imprison a sick and elderly person whose only crime is to peacefully advocate for his religious faith,” Robertson said. “The authorities should unconditionally release Nguyen Van Lia and allow him to seek proper medical treatment.”

In 2003, Nguyen Van Lia was sentenced to three years in prison for commemorating the anniversary of the death of the Hoa Hao Buddhist founder, Huynh Phu So, who had never returned from a meeting with communist representatives in 1947. The sentence was later reduced to 18 months.

Nguyen Van Lia was part of a small group of Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioners who met with representatives from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in Ho Chi Minh City in May 2009. He spoke about the Vietnamese government’s repression of unsanctioned Hoa Hao Buddhist groups. After the meeting, he was put under intrusive surveillance and repeatedly harassed by the local police of Cho Moi district, An Giang province. In December 2010, Nguyen Van Lia and three other Hoa Hao Buddhist activists met with representatives of the State Department at the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. He was arrested four months later.

“The United States should demand that Vietnam immediately release Nguyen Van Lia and cease punishing peaceful religious advocates,” said Phil Robertson.

Unsanctioned Hoa Hao Buddhist groups have long been a target of government repression. In August 2005, after one serious crackdown, a Hoa Hao Buddhist follower, Tran Van Ut, burned himself to death in protest. At least 13 other Hoa Hao Buddhist activists are serving long prison terms. The most recent arrest, occurred in July 2, 2011, when Dong Thap province police  arrested Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Tran Hoai An as he returned from visiting Hoa Hao Buddhist prisoners. Tran Hoai An was also among the four Hoa Hao Buddhist activists who met with American diplomats in December 2010.

Founded in 1939 by Huynh Phu So, Hoa Hao is a Buddhist sect based in the western Mekong delta. Some Hoa Hao adherents opposed the Republic of Vietnam in the mid 1950s as well as the communist insurgency throughout the Vietnam War. After 1975, the Hoa Hao sect was not recognized as an official religion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. A section of the Hoa Hao church agreed to submit to state supervision and gained official recognition in 1999. But other Hoa Hao Buddhist factions remain at odds with the government.

“Vietnam’s repression of unsanctioned religious groups, including Hoa Hao Buddhists, is both systematic and severe,” Robertson said. “The US and other nations should publicly raise concerns about Vietnam’s sorry track record on freedom of religion as a top priority in all their dealings with Hanoi.”

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