Harsh Sentences for Vietnamese Mennonites

Friday, November 12, 2004

Church workers face prison terms of nine months to three years.

Special to Compass Direct

HO CHI MINH CITY, November 12 (Compass) -- The People's Court of Ho Chi Minh City handed out harsh sentences to six Vietnamese Mennonite church workers in a four-hour trial which ended at noon today.

Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang and five other evangelists and workers, all arrested between March 2 and June 30, have been jailed on charges of “resisting officers of the law while doing their duty” in connection with an incident involving two undercover government operatives.

The court sentenced Quang, general secretary of the Vietnam Mennonite Church, to three years in prison. Evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach received a two-year sentence.

Evangelists Nguyen Thanh Phuong and Nguyen Thanh Nhan were sentenced to 12 and nine months respectively. Miss Le Thi Hong Lien, a church worker, received a 12-month sentence and church elder Nguyen Hieu Nghia was sentenced to nine months.

Quang and his associates confronted the undercover officers on March 2 outside the gate of the Mennonite church, which houses the denomination’s offices and serves as the Quang residence. The Mennonites say the two agents had harassed and physically abused church workers who visited the building.

The undercover officers tried to flee on a motorcycle but fell. Within 30 minutes, dozens of officers from district police Special Unit 113 and other security forces were dispatched to the scene. Armed with guns and electric cattle prods, they seized church elder Nghia and took him to the local police station.

When Thach, Phuong and Nhan went to the local police station to inquire about Nghia, authorities took the trio into custody. Christian leaders later learned that police officers took turns kicking Thach in the chest, stomach and groin, beating him until he passed out. They also beat Nhan into unconsciousness before charging the detainees with resisting police officers. (See Compass Direct, “Vietnamese Evangelists Severely Beaten in Police Custody,” March 8, 2004.)

Sources inside Vietnam believe one or more of the four church workers may have cracked under torture and provided “evidence” to arrest Quang, who was taken into custody on June 8. Arresting officers ransacked his home at that time and seized personal papers, legal documents, money, computers and files which they used to incriminate the outspoken human rights activist. (See Compass Direct, “Vietnam Police Arrest Nguyen Hong Quang,” June 10, 2004.)

Only seven family members were allowed inside the courtroom today to witness the trial. They were Mrs. Nguyen Hong Quang, the fathers of Thach and Lien, Phuong’s mother and wife, and the mother and younger sister of brothers Nhan and Nghia.

A number of Western countries asked to send diplomats to observe the trial and some foreign news reporters hoped to observe the proceedings, but permission to do so was denied.

Lawyers Tran Vu Hai of Hanoi and Bui Duc Truong of Saigon defended the accused. They plan to appeal the decision to the next and only higher level of appeal: the People’s Supreme Court. The lawyers only had a few days to prepare for the trial.

An estimated 300 well-armed police officers guarded the court area, outnumbering approximately 200 Christians who came to give moral support to their friends. Although the court had announced that the trial would be public, all observers were confined to the outdoor courtyard during the proceedings.

Police reportedly searched everyone who entered the courtyard and confiscated banners that the Christians intended to display in protest. Many were not allowed through the gate and had to stand outside in the street.

About 100 of the Christians who showed up were Mennonite Montagnard pastors and evangelists who came a great distance from the Central Highlands to support Quang, a leader they highly respect.

Quang and his co-defendants were secreted into the court through a back entrance and removed in the same way to prevent any meeting or sighting between the prisoners and their supporters.

To observers of Vietnam’s record on religious rights, the trial’s outcome indicates that the Communist regime remains impervious to the international attention received by the “Mennonite six,” as they have come to be known.

Vietnamese authorities have apparently ignored the November 5 request of 22 leaders of churches belonging to the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship to dismiss the trial and free the workers.

One source told Compass, “The real face and heart of the Communist authorities was revealed in the two days prior to the trial.” The source described how authorities ordered Mrs. Quang to a neighborhood public denunciation meeting on Wednesday evening, November 10. She declined the summons to keep an appointment with Lawyer Hai.

The following afternoon, an angry delegation of officials and “community representatives” came to the Quang home to deliver the results of the denunciation session. They told her to immediately cease any worship services on the church premises and to evict students who were living in the building. They then ordered Mrs. Quang to remove the church sign from above the gate. If she did not comply, they said, they would drive her and her three small children from their home.

A Vietnamese lawyer who asked to remain anonymous said about the trial proceedings. “On the basis of the legal issues and the realties of the case, we affirm that the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang and his fellow workers are not criminals guilty of the charges brought against them, [which claim] that they used force against persons performing their duty.

“In truth, they are victims of a tyrannical regime that oppresses religion and other human rights. During the recent trial of the three young relatives of Father Ly, the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang and his assistants went twice to this same court as the official, legal representatives of the family to defend the victims.

“During the trial today, Pastor Quang and his colleagues again went to the court, this time as victims themselves. Though the two trials are different, the charges are different and the victims are different, they are identical in the shameless way the [authorities] drop heavy sentences on innocent people.”

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