London (AsiaNews) – Amnesty International (AI) is calling on the United Nations to pay attention to what is happening in Vietnam and send a special rapporteur to investigate the state of freedom of opinion and expression. The request comes at the end of a long report which examines the behaviour of Vietnamese authorities with regards to peaceful Catholic protesters.
The report illustrates the events concerning the former apostolic delegation and the Thai Ha property, especially the government’s attitude towards Catholics’ request to have their property back, an attitude characterised by intimidation, violence, arrests, violations of freedom of thought and religion, media campaigns and discrimination.
“The Vietnamese government must end its intimidation and attacks against Catholics and ensure protection against violence by state-sponsored groups,” AI said in a press release today in London.
In its briefing paper the human rights organisation reconstructs the events that have seen since last December worshippers peacefully back demands by the Hanoi Archbishopric and the Redemptorists of Thai Ha.
After a period during which dialogue seemed to prevail with the government indicating in February its willingness to gradually return Church property, the authorities have taken a hard line.
Violence followed threatening words by Hanoi’s People’s Committee (City Hall). In September “[p]olice injured several people with their batons, and 20 people were hospitalised . . . At least eight people were arrested.”
AI “believes others are at risk of arrest: in recent days, police have stepped up efforts to intimidate protesters and are calling in for questioning both parishioners and church leaders”.
People who were arrested “were accused of destroying or deliberately damaging property and causing public disorder (Articles 143 and 245 of the Vietnamese Penal Code). Both offences carry a maximum prison sentence of seven years.”
The last article is of particular significance since it is about “causing public disorder”; for this reason, AI “has repeatedly raised concerns about this vaguely worded article because it does not comply with international standards, and is routinely used to criminalize freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
The London-based organisation “believes that more people may have been arrested and that others are at risk of arrest, particularly priests at Thai Ha parish, the Archbishop of Ha Noi, and hundreds of Catholic protesters from rural areas”. Moreover, “Vietnamese authorities have publicly threatened church leaders with legal actions unless they end what they defined as ‘illegal religious activities”.”
Protest organisers “have received threats of violence. In one instance, police officers in a northern province paid a visit to the family of a journalist observing the protests. A police officer warned the parents that their son should end his involvement in the protests or he may be killed.”
Under strict government control mass media “have published numerous articles in an intensifying campaign to discredit Catholic leaders in Ha Noi. Church leaders have been portrayed as treacherous and anti-Vietnamese, and the archbishop has been accused of distorting the truth, slandering the authorities, defying the law and challenging the state.”
For AI “this media campaign may fuel further violent attacks”.
The violence has been perpetrated “by ‘bully boys’, gangs that appear to have the backing of police and local authority officials”. And [s]tate controlled media have not reported on such violence, intimidation and harassment.”
To back its claims the report described some of the violent incidents like an assault by “hundreds of ‘bully boys’, some dressed in shirts labelled ‘Communist Youth League’ [. . .]at Thai Ha parish, where they attacked [. . .] parishioners,” first on 31 August and then again on 25 September.
At all times police was present at protest sites but at “no time did they try to intervene to protect protesters when they came under attack by gang members.”
The AI report warns that intimidation against Catholics is “on the rise”.
“Students are increasingly worried to speak about their faith at school or at university, where reports are emerging about bullying and expulsions.”
“A group of Catholic students reported to their parish that on 4 and 5 October 2008, a university principal told them that if they continue to participate in activities at the Thai Ha parish, they may be expelled. [. . .] There are several similar reports”.
In its conclusion AI reminds Vietnam that it is a party to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and must “[u]phold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and freedom of religion without discrimination; [. . .] [i]mmediately and unconditionally release those imprisoned for peacefully expressing their views; [. . .] [l]ift unlawful restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of religion and particularly reform provisions in the 1999 Penal Code relating to national security;” and “[e]nsure that a climate of impunity does not emerge with regard to attacks and acts of intimidation against Catholics, by conducting independent and impartial investigations on all attacks and acts of intimidation by police officers, including excessive use of force against peaceful Catholic worshippers, and state-sponsored ‘bully boys’ and to bring those responsible to justice in trials which comply with international standards.”