Hanoi (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The trial begins today against four young Vietnamese Catholic activists, accused of conducting "propaganda against the state". The four - Dau Van Duong and Tran Huu Duc, 24, Chu Manh Son, 23, and Hoang Phong, 25 years old - will appear before the judges of a court in the province of Nghe An, in the north, charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code for distributing "anti-government leaflets." Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling for their release, noting that religious and social persecution is at the basis of their arrest.
The Catholic activists (pictured), all university students or recent graduates of the city of Vinh, joined in the past in volunteer activities, many of which promoted by the Church, including the donation of blood, aid to orphans in distress or victims of natural disasters. The young people have also launched women's initiatives, including programs to support pregnancy and against abortion.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that "these are local volunteers, who support the work of the Catholic Church", engaged in social activities, in providing "aid on a daily basis" to those in difficulty, encouraged to act "according to the principles transmitted by their faith." He adds that their prosecution is a "clear signal" that "Vietnam does not respect freedom of religion or expression."
Article 88 of the Penal Code is often used for arbitrary arrests and indictments against bloggers, activists and representatives of civil society. Three of the four defendants have been in jail since last August, while the fourth was arrested in December. Only recently were they allowed to appoint lawyers. If convicted, they face a sentence ranging from three to 20 years in prison.
The Constitution of Vietnam guarantees freedom of religion - at least in theory - but the practice all worship is closely monitored and is under direct state control. The Catholics, numbering over six million members, is the second-biggest religion to Buddhism, in the past there have been numerous clashes between the faithful and the Hanoi government, especially with regard to church property and other issues of law.
In March, two Catholic activists, Vo Thi Thu Thuy and Nguyen Van Thanh, both accused of being linked to dissident priest Nguyen Van Ly, were sentenced under Article 88 to three and five years in prison (see AsiaNews 09 / 03/2012 "Two Vietnamese Catholics convicted of "anti-government" activities: "false accusations"). Currently 12 other bloggers and leading Catholic human rights activists, including the famous surfer Tanad Ta Phong Le Van Son, are locked up in jail awaiting trial. Of these, the majority belong to the Redemptorists of Thai Ha (Hanoi) and Ky Dong (Ho Chi Minh City).