Vietnam court convicts Catholics in land dispute

Eight Vietnamese Catholics, standing, go on trial Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, for allegedly disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils held last year as part of a campaign to get back confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thong Nhat)

Eight Vietnamese Catholics, standing, go on trial Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, for allegedly disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils held last year as part of a campaign to get back confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thong Nhat)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A Vietnamese court convicted eight Catholics on Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils to get back confiscated church land, but gave them light sentences.

One defendant received a warning while the others were given suspended sentences ranging from 12 to 15 months. They received up to two years of probation and were sent home.

The mostly peaceful but illegal vigils were a bold step in a country where church-state relations are often tense and the government frowns on public protests of any kind. The dispute did not focus on religious freedom but on a parcel of land worth millions of dollars.

Catholics and their supporters pray outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Catholics and their supporters pray outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Hundreds of Catholics, many carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary, cheered as the defendants emerged from the Donga Da district court. Some raised one of the defendants over their heads in jubilation, while others chanted “Innocent! Innocent!”

Scores of riot police stood guard around the building during the verdict, but no clashes were reported.

As he left the court, defendant Nguyen Dac Hung, 31, said he would appeal his 12-month suspended sentence. “I’m totally innocent,” he said. “This is an unjust verdict.”

While they decried the verdicts, Catholics were relieved by the light sentences. The defendants could have received up to seven years in prison.

“The authorities made a concession to the struggles of our Catholic brothers and sisters,” said Le Quang Uy, a Catholic who came to show his support. “This is our victory.”

The defendants were arrested several months ago during a series of prayer vigils held to demand the return of the land near the Thai Ha church.

Hundreds of Catholics gathered at the site for several weeks. They knocked down a section of the wall surrounding the land, set up an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary on the site and prayed for its return.

During Monday’s trial, the defendants maintained their innocence, saying they had peacefully sought the return of church land.

“Peaceful vigils cannot be illegal,” said defendant Nguyen Thi Viet, 59. “We did not disturb public order. We did nothing wrong.”

Hanoi authorities say the Thai Ha church and its surrounding land belong to the city. They say a former parish priest signed papers turning the property over to Hanoi in 1962.

Church members insist they have documents verifying their claim on the property.

Property laws are complex in Vietnam, where Communist authorities seized buildings and land from wealthy landowners, churches and other groups after taking power. Such properties were used by the state or redistributed to veterans or others who helped bring the Communists to power.

Earlier this year, Catholics also held vigils at a second valuable parcel of land in central Hanoi, the site of the former Vatican embassy in Vietnam, which closed after the Communist government took power in 1954.

A woman pray in front of Vietnamese police officers outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

A woman pray in front of Vietnamese police officers outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

In each case, the Catholics began their demonstrations after hearing rumors the government planned to sell the properties to developers.

As the conflicts escalated, the government announced it would convert each site into a public park and open a library at the former Vatican site.

With more than 6 million followers, Catholicism is the second most popular religion after Buddhism in the country of 86 million. Masses at Catholic churches around the country are heavily attended.

Vietnam has often come under international criticism for its record on religious and human rights. But in recent years, relations between Catholics and the government have begun to improve, emboldening church members to assert themselves more.

Vietnam and the Vatican have been discussing the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hFaNWDuuQ4A1hcYeEtbf3GoGu5AwD94UG40G2

Catholic protesters face court in Vietnam

A Catholic church in Vietnam where eight Catholics have gone on trial on public order charges

A Catholic church in Vietnam where eight Catholics have gone on trial on public order charges

HANOI (AFP) — Eight Vietnamese Catholics went on trial Monday charged with disturbing public order and destroying property in the communist country during rallies over a land dispute.

The defendants were among thousands who joined prayer vigils and peaceful rallies over the past year in the capital Hanoi demanding the return of Catholic church land seized by the state half a century ago.

The eight defendants — four men and four women — are accused of causing public disorder and destroying property, charges that each carry up to seven years’ jail, at the height of the demonstrations in August.

To back the state’s case, prosecutors in court showed video footage of Catholic protesters tearing down part of a brick wall around a disputed parcel of land adjacent to the Thai Ha Redemptorist parish.

Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Most church lands and many other buildings and farms were taken over by the state after communists took power in North Vietnam in 1954. The disputed Tai Ha property was used by a state textile factory that has since been demolished.

The Tai Ha property and another disputed plot of land in the centre of Hanoi — the site of the former Vatican embassy adjacent to the main St Joseph’s Cathedral — were turned into public parks in recent months.

Several of the defendants in Monday’s hearing acknowleged taking part in some of the unauthorised mass meetings held since before Christmas 2007, but they told the court they were doing so to protect church property.

“I know for sure the land belongs to the church,” said 54-year-old Ngo Thi Dung, one of two women who has been held in detention for several months.

The other female detainee, Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, admitted displaying posters and using a musical gong in the rallies, saying she also tried “to protect the land of the church.”

Also on trial but earlier released on bail were two more women — Nguyen Thi Viet, 59, and Le Thi Hoi, 61 — and four men — Le Quang Kien, 63, Pham Chi Nang, 50, Ngyen Dac Hung, 31, and Thai Thanh Hai, 21.

Hoi denied causing public disorder, saying “when we pray, we are quiet.”

Catholics hold a vigil outside court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Catholics hold a vigil outside court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Access to Monday’s hearing was restricted by officials who cited the small size of the courtroom in the Dong Da local government building.

Four foreign diplomats and two journalists for foreign news organisations were allowed to follow the hearing via closed-circuit television.

Vietnam’s tightly controlled media has largely ignored the trial.

Thousands of Catholics in parishes across Vietnam, including southern Ho Chi Minh City, have held prayers and vigils to support the defendants, said the online Catholic news service vietcatholic.net.

More than 500 Catholic faithful, including priests holding religious icons, held a vigil and sang hymns outside the government building where the trial was being held, watched over by riot police and plain-clothed officers.

“We came here to ask for justice,” said one supporter in the crowd, 67-year-old Nguyen Thi Hoa. “The Catholic detainees are all innocent.”

Another Catholic, holding up a picture of the Virgin Mary, said “the charges are groundless because these people only protected the land of the church. They did not commit any violence against the authorities.”

Vietnam, a former French colony and a unified communist country since the war ended in 1975, has Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community after the Philippines — at least six million out of a population of 86 million.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i_XFM25iyhj70czxNIb48vCxWegQ

Vietnam Catholics protest at land dispute trial

HANOI (Reuters) – Hundreds of Vietnamese police and riot police sealed off streets leading to a government building on Monday as eight Catholics went on trial over their attempt to claim a plot of disputed land in the capital.

More than 1,000 Vietnamese Catholics turned up at the People’s Committee offices in a Hanoi district to protest against the trial, a rare expression of dissent against the southeast Asian country’s ruling Communist Party.

In a peaceful demonstration, the Catholics sang hymns and held up banners demanding justice for the eight, whose court appearance is the latest twist in a dispute that has been rumbling on for months.

The piece of land in question is owned by a garment company but the protesters argue it is church land.

In August, state television showed pictures of people using hoes and hammers to break what it said was a section of the brick wall surrounding the plot, leading to police claims of “causing public disorder” and “intentional destruction of property.”

“They’re trying these eight people to send a message to the rest,” one of the protesters told Reuters, asking not to be named for fear of recrimination.

Religion remains under state supervision in the mostly Buddhist country, although Vietnam has the second largest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines, with about 6 million among the 86.5 million population.

The Hanoi government is working toward establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Pope there a year ago.

(Reporting by John Ruwitch; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould)

http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE4B70Q720081208

Coal mine blast kills 7 in Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A blast Monday at a coal mine in northern Vietnam killed at least seven workers and injured 15, a company executive said.

Rescue workers pulled their bodies from a 750-foot-deep (230-meter-deep) tunnel in Quang Ninh province and were still searching for another victim following the methane explosion early Monday morning, said Nguyen Van Thuan of the Khe Cham Coal company.

Fifteen miners were being treated for burns, while 103 others escaped unhurt, he said.

Authorities believe the miners died from severe burns. Investigators were trying to determine what started the blast, Thuan said.

Quang Ninh, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of capital Hanoi, is Vietnam’s main coal mining region.

Vietnam’s worst mining accident occurred in 1999, killing 19 workers.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5h7qfR8TApUFv7ogCOs96KwRAbcxwD94UANN80

Vietnamese Catholics on trial in land dispute case

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Eight Vietnamese Catholics went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land.

The Catholics are accused of knocking down a brick wall surrounding property near the Thai Ha church in Hanoi’s Dong Da district during several weeks of prayer vigils late last summer. They face up to seven years in prison.

Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the Dong Da district court Monday morning, displaying pictures of the Virgin Mary. Scores of riot police stood guard around the building, but no clashes were reported.

As testimony began Monday, defendant Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, said church members held the vigils to “protect the prestige and property of the church.”

Property laws are complex in Vietnam, where communist authorities seized buildings and acreage from wealthy landowners, churches and other groups since taking power in 1954. Such properties were used by the state or redistributed to veterans or others who helped bring the communists to power.

Hanoi authorities, who have since turned the property into a public park, say the Thai Ha church and its surrounding land belong to the city.

The church claims it has documents verifying its claim. The city claims a former parish priest signed papers turning the property over to Hanoi in 1962.

With more than 6 million followers, Catholicism is the second most popular religion after Buddhism in the nation of 86 million.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hFaNWDuuQ4A1hcYeEtbf3GoGu5AwD94U9UC80

Vietnam’s market economy leaves the poor behind

Bill Snyder, Chronicle Foreign Service

Monday, December 8, 2008

(12-08) 04:00 PST Ho Chi Minh City — At 16, Xuan Phuong left her home in central Vietnam to join the Viet Minh’s struggle against the French in 1946. She marched barefoot through the mountains, manufactured explosives and acted in propaganda plays for more than a decade before becoming a filmmaker covering the “American War” for North Vietnam.

Twenty years later, Doan Vinh left his wife and three children to join the National Liberation Front in the mountains near Da Nang to fight Americans. He too fought for a decade.

Both still live in what was once South Vietnam – Doan in Da Nang, Xuan Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon – and both are proud of their past struggles. But the lives of these war veterans could hardly be more dissimilar.

Now retired, Doan, 71, lives in a cramped, stucco house with a leaky roof. Rent and medical insurance for his ill wife consume well over half the family income – a pension of about $120 a month. Meanwhile, Xuan owns an art gallery, a resort on an island in the South China Sea and a number of other business ventures.

Market-based economy

Their lives reflect the stresses of Vietnam’s turn to a market-based economy. As opportunities for a new entrepreneurial class continue to grow, the safety net for the poor is fraying. Farmers and townspeople have been displaced by hotels and factories built by foreign investors; organized labor – where it exists – is impotent; health care is spotty; and traffic and air pollution in major cities have reached critical mass.

“My life,” said Doan’s wife, Mai Thi Kim, “is full of misery.” Even so, Doan’s framed Communist Party membership certificate hangs in the family living room.

Like many veterans of the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, Doan is reluctant to speak about the fighting, saying only that “the past is the past, and it’s now over.”

If there’s lingering bitterness toward his former adversaries, it’s well hidden, and his delight at hosting a gaggle of visiting Americans appears genuine.

Indeed, the war seems far from the minds of most Vietnamese – more than half of the nation’s 86 million inhabitants were born after 1975.

Of more immediate concern is Doan’s struggle to make ends meet. Last year, the family’s former home was destroyed by the monsoon rains that regularly flood central Vietnam. The government’s response? “A few bags of rice,” he said. If he stops paying health insurance premiums that consume 20 percent of his income, he would be unable to pay for his wife’s treatment. Medical care was free in Vietnam until 1989.

Even though the nation has averaged an annual economic growth rate of almost 7 percent between 1997 and 2004, annual per capita income is just $2,600. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that 36 percent of Vietnam’s inhabitants live on just $2 a day.

The turn to the free market began gradually in 1986, when the Communist Party initiated economic reform.

“The feeling was that socialism had made us poor,” said Gang Wells-Dang, co-director of Action for the City, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving life in Hanoi.

Wells-Dang, who is married to an American, says that the economic reforms didn’t pick up steam until the end of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994. Between 2001 and 2007, exports to the United States increased 900 percent, according to CIA data.

To be sure, the end of stringent controls on foreign investment injected billions of dollars into the economy and the pockets of many Vietnamese. Between 2000 and 2005, the gross domestic product more than doubled to $53 billion. The relative abundance of cash – for middle and upper classes, at least – is evidenced by the huge popularity of cheap motor scooters and small motorcycles imported from China.

Traffic and pollution

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are choked with scooter traffic that often overflows onto the crowded sidewalks. The air is so bad that many drivers, and even some pedestrians, wear surgical-style masks. It’s not uncommon to see two people squeezed onto the back of a scooter while the driver talks or sends text messages on another ubiquitous item – the cell phone. Scooters have largely replaced the bicycle, and chunky SUVs, while relatively rare, struggle to navigate the narrow, twisting streets of the capital’s old quarter.

Less obvious to a visitor is the complex of factories in a huge industrial park near Hanoi’s airport. Companies such as Sanyo, Canon, Daewoo and Panasonic formed joint ventures with the government and now employ thousands of people, including many refugees from the still-impoverished countryside.

Conditions in the factories are far from the socialist ideal. Many workers live in ugly shantytowns lining the airport road. Visitors are not permitted beyond the high fence that surrounds the industrial complex, but an underground video by independent filmmaker Tran Phuong Thao making the rounds in Hanoi tells their story.

One woman left the countryside at the behest of a recruiter. But on arriving in Hanoi, she found out the job was contingent on paying the recruiter a fee of $106, more than a month’s salary.

What’s more, the job only lasted a few months. Factories in the park tend to hire for relatively short stints and then force the workers to reapply for their positions, a tactic designed to weed out troublemakers. Those who lose their jobs have no unemployment benefits to fall back on, so the pressure to conform is enormous, says Wells.
Working class loses out

“We went from working-class heroes to cogs in the machine,” said an unidentified female worker in the film. She was later fired and now lives on the street, the filmmaker told a group of American visitors after a private screening in Hanoi.

It’s not surprising that a film critical of the system can only be shown privately, analysts say. The government has little tolerance for dissent by its citizens or reports by foreign reporters based in the country. Earlier this year, Ben Stocking, the chief of the Associated Press Hanoi bureau, was beaten by police while covering one of the capital’s rare demonstrations in which Catholics were demanding more religious freedoms. Tour guides who let their charges witness anti-government actions risk jail time.

When the war with the United States ended in 1975, Xuan Phuong spent time in Paris, where she managed to save a bit of money by working as a translator. She used her savings to buy Vietnamese art and eventually opened the Lotus Gallery in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s fancier neighborhoods. Later, she bought vacation homes on Con Son Island in the South China Sea and developed a small resort where prisoners of the South Vietnamese government once languished in infamous “tiger cages.”

Speaking out

Although her family connections and knowledge of French helped her build a comfortable life, Xuan’s status in the country has been somewhat precarious, she says. In part, her upper-class origins are a mark of suspicion, despite her past heroism.

Now 80, she has spoken out against the injustices of the government, some of which were outlined in her autobiography, “Ao Dai: My War, My Country, My Vietnam,” with the title referring to traditional garb worn by Vietnamese women. Originally written and published in France, the book has had limited distribution in Europe and the United States and has been labeled as “very harmful” by Hanoi. The government objected to her criticism of failed land-reform policies and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Like Doan, Phuong takes pride in Vietnam’s successful fight to become independent of the French and the Americans. But her pride is tinged with sadness over the increasing divide between rich and poor.

“After such a long life, it’s so sad to see so many things that have gone wrong,” she said.

E-mail Bill Snyder at foreign@sfchronicle.com.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/12/07/MNT61469VC.DTL

U.S. – Vietnam Partnership

07 December 2008

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment, and Science Claudia McMurray visited Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho City, Lam Dong Province, and Dong Nai Province November 18 to 22 to promote environmental and scientific cooperation between the United States and Vietnam. Two specific goals of her trip were to highlight the importance of cooperation on climate change research and mitigation, and to encourage efforts to preserve wildlife, as well as combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

On November 20, Assistant Secretary McMurray participated in the inauguration of the U.S. government-funded Delta Research and Global Observation Network, or “DRAGON” Institute, in Can Tho. She told the audience the center will provide “the opportunity for scientists from the U.S. and Vietnam to work together to find solutions to the challenges climate change presents to management of each nation’s river deltas,” as the Mississippi and Mekong deltas have common vulnerabilities.

A day before Assistant Secretary McMurray arrived in Vietnam, the United States and Vietnam announced the establishment of a joint working group to study the effects of climate change. The group will operate under the U.S.-Vietnam Science and Technology Agreement signed in 2000.

Assistant Secretary McMurray also met with officials of the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Protection Department and Customs Bureau, with whom she stressed the U.S. commitment to stopping illegal wildlife trafficking, a black market trade that nets traffickers between ten and twenty billion [U.S.] dollars a year. “Some may not know this,” said Ms. McMurray, “the largest market for [illegal wildlife and wildlife products] is China but the second largest market is the U.S.”

Ms. McMurray visited the Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai province to view rehabilitation centers for the Asian black bear and golden-cheeked gibbon. Both species are endangered because of relentless pressure from poaching for traditional Chinese medicine and the pet trade. She said the U.S.-Vietnam partnership aims to curb both the demand and supply of trafficked wildlife through steps such as wholesale advertising in the United States to raise awareness, and training Vietnamese forest protection forces and customs officials to improve crackdowns on traffickers.

During her visit, Assistant Secretary McMurray also stressed the need to balance economic growth with environmental protection. “The U.S. underwent a period of strong economic development and had conflicts between economic development and environmental development,” she said. “Vietnam should not forget the environmental issue because of economic interests.”

http://www.voanews.com/uspolicy/2008-12-07-voa4.cfm

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