- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

HANOI — Vietnamese democracy and human rights activists accused the government yesterday of stepping up harassment in an effort to silence them ahead of President Bush’s visit and a high-profile economic summit this week.

The activists, some of whom are under house arrest, praised a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday that denied permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status to Vietnam and criticized Vietnam’s removal from the State Department’s blacklist of countries that limit religious freedom.

“The PNTR status must come with a condition that the government respect human rights for our own people,” said Pham Hong Son, an activist who was detained for two years beginning in 2002 and has been under house arrest for another two.

He said he was detained because of an article on democracy that he translated into Vietnamese from the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and posted separately on the Internet. His claim could not be independently verified because the government does not comment on dissident cases.

The government accuses democracy activists of plotting to destabilize the country and to shame it before the 21 heads of state expected at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this weekend.

The Foreign Ministry called Monday’s House vote “very regretful, not suitable, and not serving the mutual interest and wishes of the peoples of the two countries.”

Human rights advocates in the House, such as Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, led opposition to the bill, which fell short of a needed two-thirds majority by a single vote. The bill is not expected to come back for another vote before the end of the month.

The deal was part of a flurry of activity by the two sides, seemingly designed to clear away irritants on the eve of Mr. Bush’s departure for Vietnam.

On the same day as the vote, a Vietnamese-American was released from prison and allowed to return to the United States, and Vietnam was removed from a list of countries that severely restrict religious freedoms.

John V. Hanford III, the State Department’s at-large ambassador for international religious freedom, denied Monday that politics or business played any role in the latter decision, saying Vietnam had taken a number of specific steps to get off the list.

He said Hanoi had clarified laws on religious policy; greatly curbed the practice of “forced renunciations” of religious belief; released dozens of Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant and Hoa Hao religious prisoners; allowed previously outlawed groups and denominations to register and practice their faith, including 39 new congregations in Ho Chi Minh City alone in the past month; and permitted greater freedom for Protestant and Catholic congregations, including a sharp increase in the number of new Vietnamese priests and ministers.

Mr. Hanford acknowledged that “important work remains to be done,” especially in more remote regions of the country. Protestant Montagnard groups from the central highlands have complained of harsh repression, and even torture and killing of believers by the authorities.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hanford said, “We are hearing from every religious group that we meet with that conditions have improved, that there’s really a change in the attitude.”

However, Vietnamese activists complained of continuing religious repression in an open letter published in Washington yesterday.

“The Vietnamese people do not have freedom of religion and worship,” said the writers, a group of engineers, lawyers, professors and religious leaders grouped under the name “A Call For Democracy.”

“Religious organizations which were not established by the state, such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, the Cao Dai congregation and the Mennonite Church of Vietnam, are all prohibited from operating,” the letter said.

Amnesty International agreed that the practice of religion “remains under strict control” by the government in Vietnam.

“Church members seen as opposing state policies continue to be harassed, arrested and imprisoned,” the human rights group said. “Church property has been destroyed. For example, a small Mennonite church in Ho Chi Minh City was destroyed in May.”

Mr. Son said the decision to take Vietnam off the list was “not good news for those who care about human rights.”

The activist cited at least three attempts by security police this month to warn him against speaking with foreigners who are arriving in Hanoi for the APEC summit.

On two occasions, he said, masked men on a motorcycle ran into his motorbike while he was riding it — first with his two sons and then with his wife — injuring him and damaging the motorbike. Democracy advocates and other government opponents said the authorities regularly engineer such “accidents” to send them a warning.

Nguyen Van Dai, a lawyer and member of Vietnam’s Human Rights Committee, said he has been invited to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the APEC summit, but will not go.

“I can’t leave my house because it’s under heavy surveillance,” he said. “They will use force if they have to in order to prevent me from going anywhere.”

Both Mr. Son and Mr. Dai spoke by telephone and warned a reporter against visiting their houses. All interviewed activists said they strive to achieve their goals of democracy and human rights only by peaceful means.

Mr. Pham noted that the government recently released political prisoners under pressure from Washington, but said that many of them are now under house arrest. He added that he personally knew at least 10 such persons.

• David Sands and Sharon Behn in Washington contributed to this article.

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