Vietnam Reschedules Appeal for Mennonite Pastors

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

International advocacy continues on behalf of three remaining prisoners.

Special to Compass Direct

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 5, 2005 (Compass) -- Lawyers acting on behalf of the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang informed his wife last week that his appeal before the People’s Supreme Court of Vietnam has been rescheduled for April 12. The appeal, which was filed also on behalf of fellow Mennonite pastor Pham Ngoc Thach, was cancelled without explanation just a day before it was to have originally taken place on February 2.

The new date allows the defense just 12 days to prepare for the trial.

Quang and five colleagues were charged with “resisting officers of the law while doing their duty” in connection with a March 2, 2004, incident involving two undercover government agents posted to keep his home and church under surveillance. In November, the court sentenced Quang, general secretary of the Vietnam Mennonite Church, to three years in prison.

Three of the “Mennonite Six,” as Quang and his co-defendants have come to be known, have been released after serving their respective sentences. They report being singled out for torture and deprivation because they were Christians -- and to persuade them to testify against Quang. (See Compass Direct, “Harsh Sentences for Vietnamese Mennonites,” November 12, 2004.)

Vietnamese authorities have been engaged in intense efforts to placate international criticism of the country’s restrictions on religious freedom. Since the first trial and conviction of the Mennonite Six on November 12, the government has issued a new Ordinance on Religion and a decree on implementing its provisions.

The Prime Minister also issued “Instructions Regarding Protestants” on February 4. These actions follow Vietnam’s classification by the U.S. State Department last September as a “Country of Particular Concern” for serious religious liberty offenses.

“Clearly the international criticism has finally caught Vietnam’s attention,” one source told Compass. “But it is unclear what these new measures announced will mean for Vietnam’s beleaguered Christians -- especially the ethnic minorities who make up most of Vietnam’s Protestants.

“In recent weeks we have interviewed terrified Hmong Christians from the northwest provinces who have fled to neighboring countries under ominous threats. And the recent registration of a handful of the many hundreds of disbanded Montagnard churches in the Central Highlands can hardly be seen as significant progress.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese-language newspaper Viet Bao published statements by U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Marine regarding the Mennonite Six that seemed inconsistent with U.S. support of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam.

According to Viet Bao, Marine met with a group from Vietnam in San Francisco on March 21. The Vietnamese group asked Marine whether the imprisonment of Quang was not evidence of continuing religious persecution.

Viet Bao said Marine responded by saying that Quang had violently opposed the security police. “In the United States, if someone opposed the police they will also be arrested,” Marine reportedly said. “America will always continue to idealize human rights, but recognizes that every country does things in its own way.”

A State Department source confirmed to Compass today that the San Francisco meeting did take place and described the discussion as “open and candid.” However, the source described the remarks reproduced by Viet Bao as a “collection of selected comments” that misrepresented Ambassador Marine’s statements.

According to the State Department spokesman, Marine did not say that Quang had opposed the security police, but only admitted that, “In the United States, if someone were to strike a police officer, that person would be subject to prosecution.”

The Ambassador reportedly added, “The U.S. strongly supports international norms for protecting human rights. It is clear that Vietnam is not observing these norms at present.”

The State Department source said Marine then stated that he is confident the Vietnamese government will improve its human rights record when convinced it must do so.

Ambassador Marine himself has raised the Quang issue with the government of Vietnam, calling for a fair trial and humane treatment of the prisoners. He reportedly arranged for one of the Mennonite Six, Miss Le Thi Hong Lien, to be transferred to the Bien Hoa Mental Hospital at the end of February.

Due to abuse suffered while in police custody, Lien is suffering severe physical and emotional trauma. Her parents say the 21-year-old children’s Bible teacher “has lost control over bodily functions.” Prison officials have apparently told the couple that their daughter is mentally deranged.

After visiting Lien on March 23, her father said, “I am convinced that during our visits, the officials modify their behavior and speak nicely. But most of the time, in truth, they treat my daughter as a despised prisoner, a mental case, someone beneath them.

“I also believe they violate the rights of women and their privacy, especially my daughter’s. Every time I visit, I see that they do not give her enough food. I said to my family that it’s as if my daughter is penned up with wolves.”

With Pastors Quang and Thach facing their appeal trial and Miss Lien in a mental hospital, Christians in Vietnam will be observing fasting and prayer on April 11 and 12 to express solidarity with the prisoners. They have invited others around the world to join them.