Universe Column for May 6th 2007
A court in the central city of Hue, Vietnam, recently sentenced a Catholic priest, Father Nguyen Van Ly (pronounced Lee) to an eight-year jail term. Fr.Van Ly’s name will be familiar to Universe readers because this is not the first time he has been in jail. On an earlier occasion, in January 2003, I traveled to Hanoi and met senior Communist officials in order to plead for clemency for Fr.Van Ly. After an international campaign highlighting his case the 6-year-old priest was ultimately freed.
For more than 30 years Fr.Van Ly has been a well known champion of democratic and pluralist values. The priest is accused of being a founding member of Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy movement launched last April. He is also a member of the Progression Party of Vietnam. That is a crime in a country where only one party – the Communist Party – is allowed to exist. He is also charged with having communicated with pro-democracy activists living in other countries.
At the time of his arrest last month, Fr. Van Ly had already spent 14 of the past 24 years in prison and he had been under house arrest since February. Two men and two women who have been working with Fr.Van Ly were jailed with him. In March two human rights lawyers, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan were also arrested, charged with distributing material “dangerous to the State”. In other words, literature challenging the Communist hegemony.
The photographs of Fr.Van Ly being gagged and dragged from the court have reminded the world that Vietnam, despite being given recent respectability last December, through the granting of membership of the World Trade Organisation, Vietnam remains a repressive and coercive society. It is a country which will allow pietistic religion but it will not tolerate religious freedom or the right of church leaders to make social comment.
Fr.Van Ly’s show- trial made a mockery of any concept of justice. In what was a kangaroo-court, with no pretence of impartiality of fairness, the trail lasted a single day. Fr. Van Ly was brought before the court in handcuffs. He bravely refused to recognise the right of the Communist judges to try him. Refusing to stand up before the court he denounced the Vietnamese Communist Party. With police officers covering his mouth, he was physically dragged from the courts and kept in a room where with video link while the Star Chamber court proceeded with his trail. Fr.Van Ly and the four other co-defendants were not represented by lawyers, and were removed from the courtroom at one point, with the priest shouting “Vietnam practices the law of the jungle.”
But, sadly, the jungle is not a new experience for this brave man.
After his earlier arrest, in May 2001, he was forced to stand trial without a defence lawyer or public audience. He was sentenced to 15 years in solitary confinement followed by five years on probation.
That time he was arrested at An Truyen church, Phu An commune, in central Thua Thien-Hue province, for his alleged ‘failure to abide by the decisions on his probation issued by authorized State agencies.,’ .
For more than 30 years Father Van Ly has peacefully campaigned for improved religious freedom in Vietnam and he has been regarded as a thorn in the side by the Communist authorities. His real crime, in 2001, was sending an appeal out of the country publicising Vietnam’s continued repression.
In a written testimony submitted to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001, he called on the Communist Government to make significant improvements to religious freedom. He called on officials to allow the churches to appoint their own priests, to stop listing a person’s religious affiliation on their ID card, to return confiscated property and to release those held for their religious beliefs. He had urged the Congress to postpone the ratification of a bilateral trade agreement while religious persecution persisted.
When I travelled to Vietnam in 2003 Fr.Van Ly was being kept in solitary confinement in Nam Ha province. He was bared from speaking to the guards who bring him his food and drink twice a day. During a rare visit from relatives, he said: “My duty and my conscience required me to fight for the freedom of our Church. If I had realized those terrifying situations for our Church and had not done anything, I would have been guilty before God. Now I think I have accomplished my duty, I do not feel sorry for myself.”
During my visit to Hanoi I raised Fr.Van Ly’s case with Le Quang Vinh, head of the Vietnamese Government Committee on Religion.
Quang Vinh denied that religious persecution occurs in Vietnam and says that people like Father Van Ly have been arrested for acting subversively against the Communist Party: “It was not because he contacted the Congress” he said. “Van Ly tried to upset the people. He encouraged their illegal right to own land; he lied that there was no true freedom in Vietnam, and he refused to obey the authorities and accept their control. He armed his group to fight the authorities.”
When I asked him where Fr.Van Ly bought his guns and weapons he replied that “they had sticks and knives, not guns.”
The reality is that a group of about 35 frightened parishioners had gathered for sanctuary in his church. The church was surrounded by 600 armed security officers and as Father Van Ly prepared to say Mass he was arrested. Although Quang Vinh told me that I could not visit Fr.Van Ly, he did promise to place our plea for clemency before the Prime Minister; and he was subsequently released. It shows that pressure can make a difference.
If you want to help Fr.Van Ly why not write to the Vietnamese Ambassador, 12 Victoria Road, London W8 ?