- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 23, 2007

A disagreement yesterday between President Bush and his Vietnamese counterpart over Hanoi’s human rights record cast a shadow over the first visit to the White House by a leader of the communist nation since the Vietnam War.

Mr. Bush and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet signed a trade agreement this week and emphasized the improved relations between the countries since the end of the war in 1975. However, Mr. Bush made it clear that the United States wants Vietnam to expand freedoms of speech and religion and reduce government crackdowns on dissidents.

“In order for relations to grow deeper, it’s important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights and freedom and democracy,” he said. “I explained my strong belief that societies are enriched when people are allowed to express themselves freely or worship freely.”

Mr. Triet said he and Mr. Bush disagree on whether Vietnam has violated human rights in recent months, but added that they had a “direct and open exchange” on the matter and have agreed to talk more about it.

“Our approach is that we would increase our dialogue in order to have a better understanding of each other,” he said. “And we are also determined not to let those differences afflict our overall, larger interest.”

During the leaders’ meeting in the Oval Office, a group of several hundred Vietnamese-American protesters demonstrated across from the White House in Lafayette Park. The group was loud enough to be heard inside the White House, though reportedly the noise could not be heard in the Oval Office.

Most of the protesters wore white T-shirts showing a Vietnamese police officer with his hands over the mouth of Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest. Mr. Ly was sentenced in March to eight years in prison for leading the pro-democracy group Bloc 8406.

The picture of Father Ly being muzzled by the plainclothes police officer at his March 30 trial has become a symbol of a recent crackdown by the Vietnamese government on religious and political dissidents.

“If they violate the laws, they will be punished,” Mr. Triet said Wednesday when a protester interrupted his meeting with business leaders in New York City. “Recently, Vietnam has dealt with these people that violated the law of Vietnam, not because of their political opinions.”

But the laws themselves are “totally ridiculous and anti-democratic,” said Diem Do, chairman of the U.S.-based opposition party Viet Tan, which helped organize yesterday’s protest.

“If they want to arrest you, they need no reason, and they hold you for months,” said one protester, who asked that he not be named for fear of reprisals against relatives still living in Vietnam.

Vietnam has appeared to retreat from some of the promises it made to increase religious and political freedoms after gaining admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Mr. Triet insists that only lawbreakers have been jailed, while human rights groups say several pro-democracy activists have been imprisoned. Critics say Vietnam’s ruling party maintains its grip on power by harassing and arresting members of opposition parties, which are banned in the country.

Vietnam was placed on the State Department’s list of countries of “particular concern” regarding human rights in 2004, and promised the following year to stop persecuting Catholic churches. The nation was seeking admission to the WTO at the time.

Vietnam gained permanent normal trading status with the United States last fall and WTO membership in January.

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