This morning in Vietnam eight Catholics charged with destroying property and disturbing the public order were found guilty but received suspended prison sentences. The news was greeted by cheers and flowers for the defendants from the hundreds of supporters gathered outside the courthouse.
The court case was the result of a police crackdown on protests by Catholics who claim that the Communist government illegally seized their land when it took over in 1954. Over the past year and a half, Catholics have held mostly peaceful protests asking for the return of a former papal nunciature and about 14 acres of land at Thai Ha parish.
Seven of the eight Catholics, who range in age from 21 to 63, were charged with damaging public property during the protests, while Marie Nguyen Thi Nhi was charged with causing a social disturbance for playing a gong and praying at Thai Ha. According to Fr. An Dang, the property that was allegedly damaged by the Catholics amounts to around $200.
At 5:00 a.m. on Monday morning, thousands of Catholics gathered in Hanoi to celebrate Mass and show support for those on trial. Following the Mass, over two thousand parishioners processed behind the defendants saying the Rosary as they made their way to the office of People’s Committee of O Cho Dua precinct where the trial was held.
Along the one and half mile route Catholics encouraged their fellow believers with palm leaves, which have a twofold meaning. On Palm Sunday, the fronds are used to celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, but they are also used to accompany martyrs as they head to their executions or for persecuted Christians who are about to be tried for their faith. The gesture is meant to express the Christian belief that those who are persecuted for faith will enter gloriously into the Heavenly Jerusalem.
The protestors reached the court house at 7 o’clock where they were met with hundreds of police, armed with stun guns and trained dogs. According to Fr. An Dang, the police were attempting to block access to the courthouse and limit the number of people who could have access to the area surrounding the courthouse. Other security measures included a large metal detector and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Around 700 Catholic supporters were able to find their way around the police cordon and organize a sit-in protest in front of foreign journalists and representatives of various Western embassies.
The case has been overshadowed by Catholic claims of fabrication and manipulation by the Vietnamese government. One such instance was the court’s setting of December 5 as original date for the trial. Catholics complained that this was an attempt by the government to prevent protests and popular support for the eight accused Catholics since the Church was installing a new auxiliary bishop for Hanoi 50 miles away from the trial. The government then reset the trial date for December 8.
The trial concluded this morning with seven of the Catholics receiving suspended jail terms of 12 to 15 months, minus time already spent in custody, and administrative probation of up to two years. The sentence handed down also included a warning for one defendant.