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

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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

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

Hanoi’s policy: eliminate Catholics

by Thanh Thuy
There is a fundamental lack of understanding on the part of the authorities of the very idea of religion behind the choice of oppression and discrimination as seen in the trial against the parishioners of Thai Ha.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – There is a failure to understand the very idea of religion on the part of Vietnam’s political authorities behind the constant attempt to suffocate Catholicism, Protestantism, and also other religions, as now being seen in the trial that on December 5 will be held against eight faithful of the parish of Thai Ha.

If one visits Vietnam, in many parishes one can see the announcements “pray for the Church of Vietnam” or “pray for peace and justice.” This is an invocation always present in the prayers of Catholics in this country. Catholics whom the communist government has oppressed in a sophisticated way and on various levels. But on this occasion, the authorities are not respecting the council of Vietnamese bishops. They clearly want to eliminate the Catholics.

The government has violated religious freedom and is preparing to sentence the eight faithful of the parish of Thai Ha for unjust reasons, accusing them of damaging property and disturbing public order. They are trying the eight faithful in order to threaten the other Catholics and the faithful of other religions, and in general their aim is to threaten people who want to fight for justice and religious freedom.

Every Catholic and every parish has been invited to pray for justice, peace, and religious freedom in Vietnam. The faithful this time need the voice of the bishops to express the truth, denouncing that the government has appropriated Church property, but has falsely accused the Catholics.

At the origin of the discrimination of the authorities against believers, and not only Christians, a professor of the National University of Hanoi explains to AsiaNews, “there is a prejudice. The very concept of religion is explained poorly. They do not understand well, so they lead the country badly, bringing many negative consequences like government corruption, poor education, injustice toward farmers trying to work to make a living and feed themselves.”

The idea of the Vietnamese communists about religion is that this “is a form of social conscience. Conscience reflects mythology, the illusion of objective reality. Religion is always based on belief, a belief in the transcendent. Religion cannot be examined by reality.”

Thus the government has instructed the authorities on all levels to “control the situation of the religions, classify the faithful of the religions in order to reach appropriate solutions to convince people to leave their religion.” And the political approach is to oppose, exclude, and discriminate against Catholics in Vietnam.

http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=13887&size=A

Hanoi authorities want no one to attend Thai Ha Catholics trial

Anyone who wants to attend the proceedings must submit a written request. The trial itself will not be held in a courthouse but on the 4th floor of the People’s Committee building. On the same day that the trial starts the capital’s auxiliary bishop is consecrated.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Increasingly the trial that Hanoi authorities are organising against Thai Ha Catholic parishioners is taking on political connotations. Their alleged crime is to have protested in favour of the return of land belonging to their parish that was seized by the state. However, not only did the authorities prevent two of the accused from seeing their attorneys, but they are making sure that it is very difficult for anyone to attend the proceedings.First of all, there is the date. It has been known for some time that the trail is to start on 5 December, the same day when the new auxiliary bishop of the capital, Mgr Chu Van Minh, is set to be consecrated.

Local priests will be involved in the cathedral rather than attend the trial. Similarly, tradition dictates that the laity, especially the most involved, will take part in great numbers in the ceremony and thus, like the priests, will not be able to go to the courthouse.

But this is not all. Under Vietnamese law trials are public unless the dignity of the plaintiff is at stake, which is not the case.

According to the Églises d’Asie, the lawyer for the accused, Le Tran Luat, has said that the accused have been verbally informed that anyone who wants to attend the trial must submit a written request. This is a patent violation of the principle of open trial and reflects a desire to limit the number of those present. The need to present a written request means that the authorities will be able to know who wants to attend, which is a clear attempt at intimidation.

And last but not least. The authorities have announced that the trial will not take place in the Hanoi Courthouse but rather on the fourth floor of the People’s Committee building (city hall) in Hoàng Cau Street, in Dong Da district.

On 15 November a delegate from the People’s Committee visited the Redemptorists’ convent, who are responsible for Thai Ha parish, for an urgent meeting. But it was all a diversionary manoeuvre since “hundreds of people had gathered to attack the chapel.”


http://new.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=13874

Vietnam: Catholics on trial denied lawyer access

Lawyer says he has evidence of their innocence but is afraid proceedings will turn into a political show trial that will prevent acquittal. The Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media calls on Hanoi to respect its own laws.

Two of the eight Catholics set to go on trial for the Thai Ha parish land dispute have not been allowed to meet their lawyers, said one of them, Le Tran Luat. More importantly, he believes that the defendants are not likely to be acquitted despite their innocence because the trial is turning more and more into a political show trial.

During an interview with the BBC Mr Le said that he was able to meet only six of the eight people accused with “damaging state property and disorderly conduct” during their protests at Thai Ha parish.

The two defendants he was not able to see are Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, and Ngo Thi Dung, 54. Both women are being held at Hoa Lo Prison, once known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ to US prisoners of war and now infamous for holding political prisoners. Access to this facility is generally limited.

“I was denied the permission to visit my clients there,” Mr Le said. However, even if he could see them, “prisoners are often forced to refuse any contact with their lawyers,” he added.

Those who do get to see their lawyers suffer mistreatment and punishment by prison guards.

For Mr Le from a legal point of view the charge of damaging state property is flawed because he has “enough evidence to prove that the land belongs to them [the parishioners].

In fact “the wall [they tore down] was built illegally on their land,” he said. And “they had every right to destroy it.” Hence the “government cannot charge them for damaging state property.”

In addition, the defendants prayed inside the place. “Praying is a solemn gesture,” the lawyer said. “How can it be interpreted as an act of ‘disorderly conduct’?”

Yet, despite his best efforts, “I cannot expect an acquittal verdict for my clients in this case,” he lamented.

“In my experience, in such a case, if defendants plead guilty as the government expects, they may get a tolerant verdict. Those who insist that they are not guilty will be sentenced more harshly [. . .], two and half or three years in jail.” But “I want to prove to public opinion that they actually are innocent,” Mr Le said.

Hanoi’s Redemptorist community, which oversees Thai ha Parish, is concerned about the fate of the two women, especially Ms Nguyen because she was targeted by vehement attacks in the state-run media for taking part in demonstrations over the former apostolic delegation compound.

Never the less, the eight Catholics’ trial is drawing international attention.

In Sydney the Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media has launched a worldwide appeal, calling on the Vietnamese government to “stop the media campaign against the Catholic clergy, their faithful, and the Church” and instead “respect its own law and return the property to its rightful owner.”

The appeal is signed among others by Mgr Peter Tai Van Nguyen, director of Radio Veritas Asia (Philippines); Fr John Nghi Tran, director of VietCatholic News Agency (United States); Fr Joachim Viet-Chau Nguyen Duc, director of People Of God Magazine in America; Fr Anthony Quang Huu Nguyen, director of People Of God Magazine in Australia; Fr Stephen Luu Thuong Bui, director of People Of God Magazine in Europe; and Fr Paul Van-Chi Chu, director of Gospel and Peace Radio, Sydney (Australia).

http://www.speroforum.com/site/article.asp?id=16862&t=Vietnam%3A+Catholics+on+trial+denied+lawyer+access