IN THE LAST 3 MONTHS
The last months of 2003 saw several events that dealt painful blows to the Vietnam Communist regime.
On November 19, the American House of Representatives passed Resolution 427, criticizing Hanoi for oppressive actions against the non-state-controlled United Buddhist Church of Vietnam and cracks down on the most venerable monks of the church, the self -immolation of a Vietnamese monk in North Carolina to protest Hanoi's violations on human rights and religious freedom.
The U.S. House of Representatives' resolution was followed by a similar resolution of the European Parliament. The 626 parliament members, requesting close watch on Hanoi's implementation of its pledge to respect international conventions regarding human rights and freedom, unanimously passed the resolution. It emphasizes on agreements and promises made by Hanoi in various talks with European Union concerning human rights.
The resolutions were direct reactions against recent Hanoi brazen suppressive measures to silence dissenting voices of many democracy activists and religious leaders.
In the last months of 2003, the Communist regime in Vietnam has held several court sessions to crack down on the dissidents whose non-violent struggle for a true democracy and for religious freedom has met merciless suppression.
The most reputed case was of the young doctor Pham Hong Son. Last year, he was charged with espionage against the Communist regime when he translated the article "What is Democracy" posted by the Americans on the official web site of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and handed out its copies to friends of his. Along with some email messages exchanged with overseas Vietnamese concerning non-classified information, the translation was claimed by Communist authorities as an evidence to charge Pham Hong Son of disclosing "state secrets” to those whose activities are aiming at overthrowing the Communist regime.
In June 2003, Pham Hong Son was sentenced to 13 years in prison plus 3 years under house arrest.
The prison term given to the "internet dissident" – a word newly coined by Western press corps - prompted protests from some governments and human rights organizations all around the world. Son's actions “do not fall into any clause in the Vietnam Communist Criminal Law sanctioning the crime of espionage,” they said.
On August 26, 2003, the Court of Appeal in Hanoi reduced Pham Hong Son's sentence to 5 years in prison, plus 3 years of house arrest.
At about the same time, Hanoi authorities announced that a court in Ha Nam province (North V.N. where Rev. Ly is serving his term in a prison) had reduced Rev. Nguyen Van Ly’s sentence. The provincial court had reduced his prison term to 10 years instead of 15 years as previously convicted by the Communist court in Hue (Central Viet Nam) 2 years ago. Father Ly has been a perseverant activist for religious freedom since 1994.
Some in the world outside might appreciate the two reduced sentences as signs of Hanoi's good will to positively respond to the public opinion outside Vietnam. But many Vietnamese are taking the sentence reductions of Pham Hong Son and Father Ly not as signs of tolerance but only a formal gesture to calm down the anger of human rights activists and religious freedom supporters.
Others even said the Communist authorities did anticipate possible reactions from the world general public. So in the primary trials they gave the defendants rather severe sentences in order to reduce them to shorter prison terms in the court of appeal to show the world a brighter image of their regime.
On September 10, 2003, the Communist court in Saigon convicted three relatives of Rev. Nguyen Van Ly of "Abusing liberty and democracy to act against the national great unity." His niece and two nephews, daughter and sons of Father Ly's younger sister, were involved in contacting overseas Vietnamese and providing them with news relating to their uncle, who had been sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment and recently reduced to 10 years. Earlier in the year, they had been charged of espionage. After harsh criticism by international human rights activists, the Communist authorities shifted the charge to “abusing democracy and freedom...”
In all of the court sessions trying Rev. Ly, Doctor Son and Rev. Ly's niece and nephews, the public and the press corps were not allowed in the court rooms although Communist authorities had promised to hold open trials. Moreover, the sessions lasted in a rather short time: about three hours.
In the trial of the three Rev. Ly's relatives, the Communist court of appeal in Saigon acted with the manners somehow surreptitious and inappropriate to the dignity of a court of justice.
This time the court permitted attendance of a limited number of the defendants' relatives and lawyers. It informed them that the trial would take place in courtroom number one of the Saigon Hall of Justice (near the former SVN presidential palace). At 7:30 AM as notified by the court, the relatives and lawyers were present at the said courtroom, but they found nobody there. They asked the guards but nobody could tell them anything helpful.
After about one hour of looking around, they finally found that the court session was taking place at courtroom number eight. It took them fifteen minutes to argue with the court police before they were allowed to attend. The lawyer was unable to defend his clients because he had lost the first and crucial part of the trial.
The trial of the three relatives of Father Nguyen Van Ly was especially unprecedented in another aspect. The procurator proposed that the three defendants be sentenced terms of prison of 36 months (Nguyen Thi Hoa, the sister); 20 to 30 months (Nguyen Truc Cuong, brother); 3 to 4 years (Nguyen Vu Viet, brother).
The presiding judge finally announced the sentences of longer terms: Hoa, 3 years, Cuong, 4 years and Viet, 5 years. The sentence longer than prosecutor's proposal is unprecedented in the history of Vietnam.
This should be referred to as nothing but a public contempt in broad explanation of the judicial common sense of the civilized world.
The case of the three Father Ly’s relatives concluded the same way as that of Dr. Cuong and Father Ly. About two months after their trials, all the three relatives of Reverence Ly were given reduced sentences on November 28, 2003. Hoa's sentence was reduced to 4 months and 8 days. Cuong's and Viet's were both reduced to 2 years and 8 months. The case once more affirmed the above-mentioned allegation: Hanoi sent dissidents to trial and gave them severe sentences in order to reduce them later to calm down harsh criticism.
As Hanoi leaders are doing their best to appear more lenient to the dissent opinions, they keep dealing with some dissidents with iron hand. Probably they have to calm down their faithful party ranking conservatives who always cling to the principle of “the Party’s absolute leadership” for the safety, the ruling positions of their party and power and lucrative jobs of themselves.
Last year, the Ven. Thich Tri Luc, a Buddhist monk and activist of the non-state-run United Buddhist Church, was granted asylum in Cambodia by the High Commissioner for Refugees. Three months ago, he disappeared from his residence in Phnom Penh, leaving no trace. Buddhist activists in and out of Vietnam said that he was abducted by Hanoi Public Security and brought back to Vietnam. But Hanoi government has categorically denied the allegation.
Not until last month did Hanoi affirm that Ven. Thich Tri Luc was arrested at an area close to the common border with Cambodia and confirm that he would be sent to a court for trial. It was one in many thousand times that the Communist authorities denied an action that they had committed surreptitiously and admitted it when there was no way to conceal.
Almost at the same time, when the two old monks, top leaders of the non-state-controlled Unified Buddhist Church met with each other and a number of other monks for a trip from Binh Dinh province to Saigon, Communist authorities were trying to stop them. They sent their undercover agents to force the monks back, acting as if they had been the monks' relatives or followers by persuading the monks not to continue the trip.
But they failed the attempt when a thousand local Buddhists gathered to protect the monks, who then continued their journey. However, when the monks arrived in Nha Trang, local Public Security arrested them, accusing them of "traffic code" violations and sending them back to their residences.
As usual, the Communist authorities claimed that the monks were traveling with “state secret documents,” but refused to define the charge or to prove the existence of such classified documents. The incident was followed by the new administrative orders to put the three monks under house arrest again.
Presently, Hanoi leaders seem to be alarmed by the fact that more and party members at medium and high ranking levels are joining the dissenting side.
A new victim of the crackdown campaign, a former bodyguard of Ho Chi Minh was sentenced to 10 months in jail on November 12, 2003 after his call for the release of all detained dissidents. Tran Dung Tien, 78, has been sentenced for "abusing rights on democratic freedom." But all of what he did was distributing an open letter to Communist leaders urging them to release all democracy activists.
The crackdowns are clearly an insult to the international human rights associations and the free countries that have intervened in the human rights violations in Vietnam. In late October, the United States was sending a high ranking official, Mr. John Hanford to Vietnam for human rights fact finding. The U.S official was permitted to visit some dissidents (Buddhist, Catholic...) and locations such as Ban Me Thuot.
In his report after the trip, he expressed great concerns about Hanoi leaders' lack of understanding of religious issues. Hanoi behavior towards religious freedom could be a serious mistake in dealing with America especially in the critical period when Hanoi is in desperate need of better relations with the U.S.
The different visits by many foreign officials resulted in a human rights report made by the U.S. State Department. The report strongly criticizes the Vietnam Communist regime of unrelenting violations on human rights and religious freedom.
In the last weeks of 2003, Hanoi had its different satellite organizations hold dozen of meetings in order to raise protest against the U.S. State Department report and particularly the two resolutions by the U.S. House of Representatives and the European Parliament. The protests, as usual, are aimed mainly at the Party conservative veterans who are living with their past and in discontentment with the current reforms, not at those international critics.
On December 30, 2003, a former journalist serving the "Communism Magazine" for 10 years until a few years ago, was sentenced to 7 years in jail plus 3 years under house arrest. Nguyen Vu Binh, 35, was charged with espionage, a vague term often used by Hanoi to convict any dissident it put on trial. He was arraigned for gathering anti-government information for anti-Hanoi organizations in exile. In fact, he used the Internet to circulate his article criticizing the Communist leaders on the border agreement between Hanoi and Beijing. Many Vietnamese accused Hanoi leaders for the agreement they said selling national territory cheaply only in the interests of the Communist Party.
At about the same time, he sent a letter to the United States House of Representatives, complaining of violations of human rights and democracy in Vietnam. He also released an open letter to the Communist leaders urging them on political reform to build a true democracy in Vietnam. Nguyen Vu Binh was arrested in September, 2002.
On December 31, 2003, he was tried at Hanoi People's Court in a closed session that lasted only 90 minutes with no concrete evidence more than the said letters to support the charges.
Right after the sentence was announced, the US State Department and its embassy in Hanoi, along with many international organizations for human rights and freedom severely criticized the Communist government for the action against the peaceful opinion expression of Nguyen Vu Binh.. According to many Vietnamese, Hanoi's action shows defiance of the international good will, in particular the United States, while Hanoi is looking for great help to be admitted in WTO and for better diplomatic relations .
On December 24, 2003, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Chan Hy, 74, burned himself to death at Lien Hoa Pagoda, Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina. He left a letter saying that his self-immolation was for the three wishes for Vietnam: Freedom of religion and belief, human rights and democracy, sovereignty of lands and sea borders.
The monk's protest by giving up his life shocks every Vietnamese who has heard the event.