- Associated Press - Thursday, January 6, 2011

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Police roughed up an American diplomat in Vietnam and repeatedly slammed a car door on his legs when he went to visit a prominent dissident, an official in Washington said Thursday, detailing an encounter that prompted a strong U.S. protest.

Christian Marchant, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, was expected to make a full recovery after being roughed up while trying to visit the detained dissident, said the U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details.

Neither the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi nor outgoing Ambassador Michael Michalak would describe the incident, but he said the U.S. had protested what occurred Wednesday in the central city of Hue.

“The United States government, both here in Hanoi and in Washington, has lodged a strong, official protest with the government of Vietnam regarding the treatment of one of our diplomats,” Mr. Michalak told reporters Thursday during his farewell press briefing.

He called the issue a matter of grave concern, saying foreign diplomats are protected under international law.

“All governments are responsible for complying fully with the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, including ensuring the safety and security of diplomatic personnel,” he said.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the government is reviewing the incident, but added that foreign diplomats also have a responsibility to abide by the host country’s laws.

Mr. Marchant’s work on human rights was recently recognized with an award from the State Department.

A 2009 State Department report on Vietnam’s human rights record said political activists and family members were regularly prevented from meeting with foreign diplomatic representatives.

U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia said Mr. Marchant was attacked outside the home of Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, wrestled to the ground, put into a police car and driven away.

Mr. Ly, 63, one of Vietnam’s best-known dissidents, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2007 on charges of trying to undermine Vietnam’s Communist government. He is under house arrest after being released last year on medical parole.

During his trial, Mr. Ly shocked the court by shouting out in protest. Photos of a police officer covering Mr. Ly’s mouth to try to silence him circulated worldwide. Several members of the U.S. Congress have repeatedly called for the priest’s release.

The incident comes a week ahead of Vietnam’s National Party Congress, when the country’s new leaders will be announced. Rights groups have criticized crackdowns on dissidents, which have increased during the run-up to the event.

“We think the Vietnamese police are out of control,” Phil Robertson of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said by telephone from Bangkok.

He called on the Vietnamese government to properly investigate the reported incident in Hue and to take swift action in this and other cases of alleged police brutality.

The U.S. government has been a loud critic of Vietnam’s human rights record, urging Hanoi to stop jailing pro-democracy dissidents and to allow followers of all religions to worship freely.

Mr. Michalak told reporters last month there was a spike in arrests and convictions in 2010 involving people peacefully expressing their views.

Vietnam’s government does not tolerate any challenge to its one-party rule. It maintains that only lawbreakers are jailed.

Lee contributed to this report from Washington.

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