Vietnam: Fr Nguyen Van Ly should remain free

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Vietnam should immediately release the Roman Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Ly, who was sent back to prison on 25 July 2011 to serve a sentence for political dissent, Human Rights Watch said.

Fr Nguyen Van Ly - Video image: nowpublic.com

The state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA) said he was returned to prison for “compiling, storing and distributing documents…opposing the Party and the State” and “inciting people to…stage demonstrations”, which the news agency claimed defied the law.

The activist priest, who suffered several serious strokes while serving an eight-year prison sentence, was granted temporary medical parole 16 months ago. With his return to prison, Ly must serve five more years behind bars followed by five years of probationary house arrest.

“Throwing Father Ly back in prison only compounds the cruelty and injustice of his original sentence,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Father Ly was convicted solely for expressing peaceful political beliefs and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.”

Human Rights Watch is concerned for Ly’s health since he suffers from serious ailments that could worsen in prison. He experienced three strokes while held in solitary confinement in prison in 2009, has a 3-centimeter brain tumour that may have contributed to paralysis of his right leg and arm while in prison, and suffers from carotid atherosclerosis, a leading cause of stroke, and high blood pressure.

Ly, 65, was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for pro-democracy activities, including issuing a manifesto calling for peaceful struggle to establish human rights and democracy in Vietnam. The authorities charged him with disseminating “anti-government propaganda” under penal code article 88. During his trial in 2007, police placed their hands over his mouth to muzzle him when he confronted Vietnamese judicial officials and accused them of practising the “law of the jungle.”

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Ly has spent a total of 15 years in prison since 1977 for his peaceful campaigning for religious freedom, democracy, and human rights. He was one of the principal architects of the democracy movement known as Bloc 8406, named after the date of its founding on 8 April 2006. He also played leading roles in two underground pro-democracy publications, “Tu Do Ngon Luan” (Freedom of Expression) and “Tu Do Dan Chu” (Freedom and Democracy) and was one of the founding members of the opposition Vietnam Progression Party. In 2008 and 2004, he received the Hellmann/Hammett writers award.

“Vietnam denies its people basic freedoms and unjustly imprisons peaceful activists like Father Ly,” Robertson said. “Returning Father Ly to prison for another five years poses serious risks to his health and violates his right to peaceful expression and freedom from arbitrary detention.”

His return to prison marks the end of the home detention at his parish in Hue, where he was sent to recover his health starting on 15 March 2010. In Hue, the People’s Committee of Vinh Ninh Ward instructed Ly that he was strictly prohibited from making any anti-government actions or communications, and that he was required to get advance permission to leave the ward. The police in Hue harassed and intimidated anyone who tried to visit Ly, including a US embassy official, Christian Marchant, who was assaulted when he tried to visit Ly in January 2011.

In September 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the immediate and unconditional release of Ly, who it said had been arbitrarily and illegally detained and denied access to legal counsel by the Vietnamese authorities.

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Vietnam’s development partners, including the US, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Japan, should weigh in forcefully with the government and insist that Ly be released from prison, Human Rights Watch said.

“Vietnam’s donors need to make it clear that it is not acceptable for Vietnam to continue to flagrantly violate human rights and religious freedom,” Robertson said. “Until Vietnam improves its record on religious freedom, the US should reinstate Vietnam’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern for violations of religious freedom.”

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