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

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

AFP: Vietnam court upholds blogger’s jail term

The Ho Chi Minh City Peoples Court

The Ho Chi Minh City People's Court

HANOI (AFP) — An appeals court in communist Vietnam on Thursday upheld a blogger’s two-and-a-half-year jail sentence for tax fraud in a case media watchdog groups have said was politically motivated.

The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court confirmed the September verdict and sentencing of Nguyen Hoang Hai, who uses the weblog name Dieu Cay and is a member of the online Free Vietnamese Journalists Club.

“After several hours of debate with his lawyers, the court upheld the first instance sentence of two-and-a-half years imprisonment for Nguyen Hoang Hai on the charge of tax fraud,” court official Phan Tanh told AFP.

Hai — who has taken part in anti-Beijing demonstrations about a sensitive sea territory dispute with China — was arrested in April, days before the Olympic torch passed through the southern city, formerly called Saigon.

“The authorities are trying to silence this blogger,” said media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in a statement before the hearing.

“Dieu Cay should be freed at once,” said the Paris-based group which has called the weblog writer a “cyber-dissident.”

“We call on the foreign embassies in Vietnam to defend free expression by urging the Vietnamese government to release him.”

RSF said that, according to Hai’s son, he had been under close police surveillance since joining street demonstrations early this year against China’s claim over the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

The protests backed the government stance that the islands belong to Vietnam, but they also embarrassed the leadership which received a stern rebuke from China for allowing the rare street protests to take place.

“The police are harassing his family, his property has been seized and close colleagues have been threatened and arrested,” the RSF said.

Vietnam will issue new rules against “incorrect information” on blogs this month, state media reports said this week, quoting government officials.

The regulations aim “to create a legal base for bloggers and related agencies to tackle violations in the area of blogging,” said Information and Communication Deputy Minister Do Quy Doan, according to the Thanh Nien daily.

The ministry “will contact Google and Yahoo! for cooperation in creating the best and the healthiest environment for bloggers,” he reportedly added.

AFP: Vietnam court upholds blogger’s jail term

No sign that jailed blogger Dieu Cay will get fair appeal

(JPEG) Reporters Without Borders calls on the Vietnamese authorities to stop manipulating the legal proceedings against blogger and human rights activist Nguyen Hoang Hai, better known by the blogging name of Dieu Cay, who is serving a 30-month jail sentence on a charge of tax fraud.

Foreign journalists will not be admitted into the Ho Chi Minh City courtroom when his appeal against his 10 September conviction is heard tomorrow.

“The refusal to let foreign journalists cover the hearing, which is supposed to be public, is indicative of the way these proceedings have been conducted,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The appeal court has also violated the right of defence by giving his lawyers less than two weeks to prepare for the appeal hearing. All this shows that the authorities are trying to hide the fact that Dieu Cay was convicted on a trumped-up charge.”

Dieu Cay’s lawyers and family, including his ex-wife, were notified on 25 November that the appeal was to be heard in nine days’ time. This violated article 242 of the Vietnamese code of criminal procedure, which says the defence must be notified 15 days in advance to allow it time to prepare. The code has been in force since July 2004.

His lawyers requested a postponement of the hearing but the appeal court’s judge refused and told one of the lawyers that “even if the defendants and their lawyers are not in the room, we will examine the case.”

Dieu Cay’s tax fraud conviction was based on the allegation that he had not paid any taxes for the past ten years on premises he owned, when in fact he rents the premises from the Hanoi Eyewear Co. under an arrangement allowed by the law in which the company assumes responsibility for paying the taxes.

“The authorities are trying to silence this blogger,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Dieu Cay should be freed at once and the charges against him and his ex-wife should be dropped. We call on the foreign embassies in Vietnam to defend free expression by urging the Vietnamese government to release him.”

Dieu Cay was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on 19 April and was charged with tax fraud five days later. According to his son, he had been under close police surveillance since taking part in demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City at the start of the year in protest against China=s claim to sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The police are harassing his family, his property has been seized and close colleagues have been threatened and arrested.

A founder member of a group of bloggers known as the Free Vietnamese Journalists Club, Dieu Cay is one of the country’s best known activists. The US-based Vietnam Human Rights Network (VNHRN) awarded him a prize on 29 October for his commitment to free expression.

Vietnam is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet” and its Internet censorship practices are almost as thorough as those of its Chinese big sister. Deputy information minister Do Quy Doan told the local press on 2 December he intended to “issue guidelines on the distribution of information in blogs.”

The Thanh Nien daily newspaper meanwhile reported that the information ministry planned to “contact Google and Yahoo! about cooperating in the creation of the healthiest and best possible environment for bloggers.”

http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29524

Viet slammed for jailing Chien

In May this year Chien (pictured) and another journalist were arrested, and they were convicted last month, along with their police sources, in a case that sent a chill through the country’s state-controlled media industry. –PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

HANOI – FOREIGN diplomats at a meeting on Friday criticised Vietnam for punishing graft-busting journalists and urged the communist government to step up its anti-corruption drive.

Diplomats speaking at the annual Anti-Corruption Dialogue focused on the jailing last month of newspaper journalist Nguyen Viet Chien who had helped uncover a major corruption scandal three years ago.

Swiss ambassador Jean-Hubert Lebet said the case was ‘devastating,’ both for Vietnam’s media and for the country’s image, because it sent the signal that ‘if somebody is reporting on corruption, he goes to jail.’

Chien helped drive media reporting on the so-called PMU 18 scandal, named after a transport ministry road-building unit whose officials pilfered millions in foreign aid and bet much of it on football matches.

In the wake of the scandal, the government in 2006 vowed to crack down on the widespread scourge of corruption, an effort that was cheered by the international community and foreign business groups.

But in May this year Chien and another journalist were arrested, and they were convicted last month, along with their police sources, in a case that sent a chill through the country’s state-controlled media industry.

Chien, an award-winning veteran reporter with the popular Thanh Nien daily, received two years’ prison for the vague charge of ‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.’ Dutch Charge d’Affaires Bengt van Loosdrecht said at the Hanoi meeting on Friday that ‘if the conduct of the media is too easily criminalised, they may feel hampered to exercise their tasks professionally.

‘Journalists need full access to information and sufficient self confidence to express themselves freely without risking punishment.’ — AFP

http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/SE%2BAsia/Story/STIStory_308029.html