Vietnam's Imprisoned Mennonites Appeal to People's Supreme Court

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Evidence emerges that church workers endure severe torture.

Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, January 13 (Compass) -- Sources in Vietnam have informed Compass that the People’s Supreme Court in Ho Chi Minh City will hear the appeals of the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang and evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach on February 2. This represents the final appeal option available to the defendants; however, the high court has virtually never reversed a lower court decision.

Mennonite leaders Quang and Thach received three-year and two-year sentences respectively -- the longest sentences among six Mennonite workers sentenced on November 12, 2004 -- for charges of “resisting persons doing official duty.” Both men are being held in the Chi Hoa Prison in Ho Chi Minh City.

While the Vietnamese government has maintained that the trial has nothing to do with religion, at least five raids on the Quang home and Mennonite church involving dozens of police officers in the days surrounding the November trial strongly belie that claim. The stated objective of the raids, some of which were recorded and video-taped, was to put an end to all “illegal religious activity.”

The higher court denied an appeal from evangelist Nguyen Van Phuong, scheduled for release on March 2. Phuong is serving the remainder of his sentence in Bo Vu Prison in Binh Phuoc Province.

An appeal was also denied Miss Le Thi Hong Lien, a children’s teacher, whose one-year sentence ends June 30. She is reportedly unfit to stand trial.

The torture and abuse that Lien, 21, suffered while imprisoned has led to her complete mental and physical breakdown, according to sources in Vietnam. A strong, bright and committed Christian worker when she was arrested June 30, 2004, Lien is now a mere shadow of her former self.

Authorities told her father that she is “wild” and needs to be tied hands-and-feet to her bed. They informed him also that she has no control over her bodily functions and that punishment for this does no good. They claim she has become the object of prurient interest by prisoners around the infirmary where she is held, because she removes her clothes and staggers around naked when she is unrestrained.

Prison officials told her father that she was given beatings recently because he had spoken to foreign journalists about her mistreatment.

When the egregious abuse of Miss Lien came to the attention of Amnesty International, that organization launched an “urgent action” appeal, asking its constituency to write letters to Vietnam’s top leaders on her behalf.

During the first months of her incarceration, Lien was denied family visits, supposedly guaranteed by law, because, prison officials told her parents that she was “stubborn and uncooperative.” According to the testimony of co-defendants Nguyen Thanh Nhan and Nguyen Hieu Nghia, this meant she refused to lodge false accusations against Quang.

Nhan and Nghia received the lightest sentences of the six Mennonite prisoners and were released in early December.

The source who translated the two brothers’ written accounts, which outlined the severe abuse they suffered during their months of imprisonment, told Compass, “These accounts would do the Soviet gulags proud. They are heart-rending reports of non-stop beatings, deprivation and humiliation because of their Christian faith.

“A favored method of abuse was to entice hardened criminals with rewards of good food and cigarettes to beat the Mennonite prisoners. They enthusiastically complied. The brothers recall loud screams of pain under torture reverberating through the cell-block and fading to nothing as, one by one, the brothers and the other Mennonite prisoners were beaten into unconsciousness.

“Both brothers report that many times the torture was administered because they would not sign prepared false accusation documents against their leader, the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang.”

The brothers, age 22 and 24, have had medical exams and are under treatment. Doctors were alarmed at what they found. Both had untreated broken noses. Nhan still has constant bouts of vomiting and Nghia a crippled leg. Both are unable to work.

Compass has learned that lawyers are preparing the appeals of Quang and Thach, but little hope exists that the attorneys will be allowed to vigorously defend the Mennonites.

To date, none of the six prisoners or their families has been provided a written copy of the People’s Court decision from the November 12 trial. Legal observers say that the original trial should have been considered a mistrial because defendant Lien showed every sign of having had a mental breakdown when she was brought to the court. She was unable to stand or speak, but the judge would not permit a medical examination or opinion. That is grounds for a mistrial--even in Vietnam.

A lawyer following the case told Compass, “Glaring illegal irregularities in the Vietnamese legal system are of no consequence when the judiciary and the government prosecutors are one and the same.

“The sentences are fixed on political grounds before the trial. This disheartening display of injustice toward the innocent Mennonite prisoners and their systematic abuse while in custody should give serious pause to anyone who says Vietnam is making progress toward rule of law.”