Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Dissidents among 8,325 prisoners released

Vietnam announced Jan. 31 it would grant amnesty prior to Tet to "8,325 inmates and 103 convicted felons whose sentences have been temporarily suspended." Among those released are "six persons who committed crimes detrimental to national security." These six included four prominent and long term prisoners of conscience for whom Amnesty International and other human rights groups have long campaigned:

- Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, age 62, a medical doctor and former director of Cho-Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, who has spent 20 of the last 26 years in prison for criticizing the government's human rights record. He was most recently arrested in 2003 for criticizing the lack of freedom of information in Vietnam, in a statement widely distributed abroad.

- Nguyen Dinh Huy, age 72, a former English and history professor, who founded a pro-democracy group, the Movement to Unite the People and Build Democracy, and was arrested in 1993 when he attempted to organize a conference on democracy, which he thought had the approval of the Communist Party leadership. Huy, who had previously spent 17 years in re-education camps, was sentenced 15 years.

- Thich Thien Minh (secular name Huynh Van Ba), age 50, a Buddhist monk affiliated with the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who was arrested and imprisoned in 1979 after he protested the government takeover and subsequent destruction of his pagoda. He was accused of "attempting to overthrow" the government and sentenced to life imprisonment. He received a second life term in 1986 for an alleged escape attempt. He has been subjected to solitary confinement, with his hands and feet shackled for three years.

- Rev. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, age 59, a Catholic priest who was sentenced in October of 2001 to fifteen years imprisonment followed by five years house arrest for committing "state sabotage" when he sent a letter to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom criticizing the lack of religious freedom in the country. His sentence was subsequently reduced to ten then five years in 2003. Amnesty International USA had made Fr. Ly into a "special focus case," with its activists sending more than 94,000 appeals for his release. Fr. Ly had previously been jailed for one year in the late 1970s and sentenced to ten years in 1983 for his dissenting views.

The identity of the other two released prisoners accused of violating national security is unclear, but among others released in this amnesty are: Truong Van Duc, a leader of the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect; Nguyen Dinh Long, a pro-democracy advocate; Pham Minh Canh, jailed for criticizing the government; and Nguyen Long Sy, who was accused to trying to overthrow the regime.

Also released were 33 foreign nationals; 161 prisoners who had committed "economic crimes", including 90 accused of corruption, and 13 prisoners associated with the Nam Cam crime gang. The Nam Cam prisoners released were described as "former state personnel whose families had rendered meritorious services to the state and some of them were even bestowed with state medals." These included former Deputy Minister of Public Security Bui Quoc Huy, Hanoi's former chief prosecutor Nguyen Thap Nhat, and former chief of the Ho Chi Minh City police's Crime Division Duong Minh Ngoc.

Vietnam news sources report that of the released inmates, 4,896 were ordered to pay fines or civil compensations by the court, which total VND65.5 billion ($ 4.2 million). A foreign diplomat said the released had to assure authorities that they would keep a low profile. "It is clear that these people will be closely watched," he said.

According to Vietnam News Briefs (which summarizes Vietnamese press articles): "For last year's amnesty, 8,623 prisoners were set free on National Day, September 2. Almost two thirds of the released them now have stable jobs and only 31 or 0.36% committed crimes that landed them back in jail. Since 1993, after the Ordinance on Sentence Serving was issued, there have been five amnesties, including this year's (1993, 1995, 2000, 2002 and 2004-2005). By February this year, 57,538 convicts will have been set free."

The response by foreign governments and human rights groups to this amnesty was positive but also critical. An EU diplomat described the releases of the dissidents as a "welcome gesture," but added the hope to see "all the prisoners named on our list released." U.S. senator Sam Brownback from Kansas welcomed the release but said that continued repression in Vietnam will remain "a big bump on the road" in U.S.-Vietnam relations until the situation improves. Amnesty International also welcomed the release but expressed its hope to see other prisoners of conscience released, including Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Vu Binh and Nguyen Khac Toan, who were part of a loosely-connected group of intellectuals and former communist party members arrested for their dissent. AI and other human rights groups also expressed their concern that the released prisoners be allowed full citizenship rights, including the right of freedom of expression.

(VNA/Nhan Dan, Feb. 1; VNExpress web site, Hanoi, in Vietnamese 31 Jan 05, BBC Monitoring International Reports; Young People Feb 1 p1, Youth Feb 1 p1, The People Feb 1 p1, Pioneer Feb 1 p1, The Law Feb 1 p1, Labor Feb 1 p1, Vietnam Economic Times Feb 1 p1, VNS Feb 1 p1, Capital Security Feb 1 p8, Vietnam News Briefs, Feb. 1; Agence France Presse, Jan. 28, Feb. 1; Amnesty International USA press release Jan. 31; Amnesty International press release Jan. 31; Vietnam Committee on Human Rights/Que Me press release Jan. 31; Catholic News online [no date]; Xinhua Jan. 31; Associated Press Jan. 31).


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