Vietnamese court convicts eight Montagnard as a "threat" to national unity
Sentences range from three to 11 years in prison. Membership in a Catholic group "not recognised" by the state was an aggravating factor. For decades, Vietnam's Communist authorities have oppressed the minority. US activist says charges are a pretext to crush religious freedom and deny basic rights.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - A court in Vietnam's Central Highlands has sentenced eight ethnic Montagnards, mostly Christians, to sentences ranging from three to 11 years in prison. Members of this ethnic group have often been the victim of persecution in the Asian country. The court ruled that they were a "threat to the unity of the state" because of their membership in a Catholic group "not recognised" by Communist authorities in Hanoi.

In recent weeks, the government has stepped up its attacks against religious groups, bloggers and dissident groups. For the authorities in Hanoi, they are a "threat" because they want greater personal freedom and are against one-party rule.

In the case in Gia Lai province, some of the defendants had been charged for allegedly working with an exiled group in an attempt to create an independent state for the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands. Others were accused of inciting thousands of protesters to demonstrate against their relocation from their village to make way for a power plant in 2008.

All eight-aged 32 and 73-were convicted under article 87 of the Penal Code, which punishes those "undermining the [national] unity policy" by "sowing division" or ethnic or religious hatred.

Scott Johnson of the Montagnard Foundation, a US-based rights group, said that the sentence was unjustified.

"In reality, all these ethnic people" really "want" is "indigenous land rights and basic human rights," he said. "They are not terrorists, they are not separatists, and they do not seek an independent state."

The charges are but a pretext used by the government to suppress religious freedom and movements independent of the party.

For years, the "mountain tribes" have endured government persecution, a legacy of the days of the Vietnam War when they sided with the United States in order to create their own autonomous state.

Since then, Vietnamese authorities have oppressed them, accusing them of "secession," an excuse used to grab their land.

Many have sought refuge in Cambodia, but Cambodian authorities has systematically repatriated them in violation of UN rules on political refugees.

The fact that most of Montagnards are Christian further fuels government suspicion, adding another layer to its policy of ethnic and political persecution.