By BosNewsLife Asia Service
HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife)– Christian rights campaigners on Wednesday, June 15, demanded the immediate release of seven Vietnamese activists, including three Christians, who were convicted of “attempting to overthrow the government” and jailed to between two and eight years.
The detained activists were also given between three to five years of probation, following a one-day closed trial on May 30 in the communist country, according to Christians familiar with the case.
Among those sentenced were well-known Pastor Duong Kim Khai, Tran Thi Thuy and Nguyen Thanh Tam who Christians said were active in peaceful campaigning for land rights in in Ben Tre region. “Tran Thi Thuy received eight years, Pastor Duong Kim Khai six years and Nguyen Thanh Tam a two-year sentence,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a Christian group working for religious freedom in Vietnam and other countries.
The three Christians are members of the unrecognised branch of the Mennonite church and attended the “Cow Shed Church” in Ho Chi Minh City, Christians said. “Inspired by their Christian faith, they worked assisting fellow Vietnamese citizens who lost farmland when it was forcibly sold by local government to large corporations, helping them to file complaint letters asking for adequate compensation,” CSW added in a statement.
The sentencing has also been linked to the unregistered status of their church. Vietnam requires legal registration of denominational groups, but registration can only be granted following twenty years of ‘stable operation’, church observers say. There are two branches of the Mennonite Church in Vietnam – one is registered and the other is not.
The “Cow Shed Church” belongs to the unregistered branch. Additionally the three were also said to be members of Viet Tan, an overseas-based democracy party that calls for peaceful political reform.
Pastor Duong Kim Khai was reportedly held since 10 August 2010, having been detained in Ho Chi Minh City. Pastor Khai’s disabled wife and then 17-year-old son were not given arrest papers or details of Pastor Khai’s detention, CSW said. CSW cited its sources as saying that “Pastor Khai is a gentle man who wanted to help others and speak up for injustice.” The pastor reportedly already served two years in prison on similar charges.
The other four activists were identified as Pham Van Thong, Nguyen Chi Thanh, Ms. Pham Ngoc Hoa and Cao Van Tinh.
“The seven activists, three of whom were inspired by their Christian faith, attempted to assist their fellow citizens by standing up for justice after the unfair seizing of land from poor farmers,” CSW’s National Director Stuart Windsor told BosNewsLife in a statement.
He said that CSW has urged Vietnamese authorities “to respect the rights of its citizens to peaceful protest and not to sacrifice the rights of the poor for economic development.”
Rights activists and Western diplomats suggest that there has been an increase in arrests and harassment of dissidents in recent months.
Prior to the latest trial, five members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung calling for the charges to be dropped.
The United States later condemned the conviction of the seven Vietnamese land rights activists.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi also complained that diplomats were denied access to the trial and that Washington had expressed concerns about the proceedings to senior Vietnamese officials.