- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Religion in Vietnam

A senior U.S. diplomat is due in Vietnam this weekend to investigate a crackdown on Christians, Buddhists and others for violating the communist nation’s strict controls on religion.

John Hanford, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, will visit Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the Central Highlands to “learn more about the status of religious communities and activities in Vietnam and to continue ongoing discussions with the government of Vietnam concerning religious freedom,” the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi announced yesterday.

His seven-day visit beginning Saturday comes as pressure is growing in Washington to demand that Vietnam ease its laws that require religions to gain government approval of their doctrines and leaders or face prison terms of up to 15 years.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging Congress and the Bush administration to declare Vietnam a “country of particular concern,” which could lead to sanctions. The United States is Vietnam’s largest trading partner.

Advocates of freedom of speech and religion have been arrested over the past year for “such vague offenses as ‘inciting social disorder, threatening national security, … or violating Vietnamese values and traditions,’” Nina Shea, the commission’s vice chairman, said at an Oct. 1 congressional hearing.

In Hanoi last month, U.S. Ambassador Raymond Burghardt warned the Vietnamese government that its poor record on religious liberty is getting “high-level attention in Washington.”

Outspoken oil baron

Russian oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky thinks his high-stakes legal battle with the Kremlin will go a long way toward determining his country’s success in the halting transformation to a modern democracy.

In a visit to Washington last week, the multibillionaire head of oil giant YukosSibneft told an overflow crowd at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that his company was locked in a war with state prosecutors allied with forces in the government hoping to preserve the cozy, corrupt ways of the old Soviet Union and of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia.

A subdued Mr. Khodorkovsky, one of his country’s leading business oligarchs and reportedly among the richest men in Europe, described his recent legal woes as a struggle of a company striving to play by global rules of transparency and fair play against unnamed “law-enforcement bureaucrats” for whom “the previous rules were preferable,” our correspondent David R. Sands reports.

Mr. Khodorkovsky’s longtime partner Platon Lebedev has been jailed since July on charges of fraud, and the state prosecutor’s office has staged a series of raids on Yukos offices amid accusations of tax evasion, theft and even attempted murder.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has taken on other Russian oligarchs who were seen as a threat to his own power, has maintained a studious silence over the Yukos campaign. Mr. Khodorkovsky refrained from direct criticism of Mr. Putin, painting his legal battles as part of an ongoing power struggle within the Kremlin over the future of Russian civil society.

Mr. Khodorkovsky, a onetime Young Communist League member who made his fortune in the wild “cowboy capitalism” days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has made a conspicuous effort to clean up his reputation and position his company as a responsible corporate citizen. He denied Yukos has backed political parties or individual candidates, but said he and the company’s shareholders as individuals were free to exercise their rights as citizens.

Some Yukos investors backed Mr. Putin’s political movement, and some even backed Russia’s declining Communist Party, he noted.

“And until they vote to nationalize us,” he joked, “we will continue to pay dividends to them.”

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison @washingtontimes.com.

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