After being arrested in a clash with police in a church-state property dispute, six Catholic villagers in Vietnam were convicted in a quick trial on Wednesday. One U.S. congressman criticized the proceeding as a “sham court,” noting the defendants’ lack of a lawyer.
The six villagers were among the 59 people arrested after clashes between 500 Catholics and government agents at the parish cemetery of Con Dau on May 4. Catholics had conducted a funeral procession for an 82-year-old woman and tried to bury her in the cemetery, which had been seized by the local government to build a tourist resort.
Chief Judge Tan Thi Thu Dung imposed a sentence of 12 months on one of the defendants, nine months on another, and gave a suspended nine-month sentence to the remaining four. The judge said they had incited riots, falsely accused the government and instigated others to attack state officials on duty.
The accused said they were innocent and were only engaged in self-defense against police attacks, VietCatholic News reports.
In two separate Oct. 26 letters to the Vietnamese president and prime minister, U.S. Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have said one villager, Nam Nguyen, died after repeated beatings by police. Two women also reported miscarriages. The congressmen also cited reports that the six villagers on trial were tortured and forced to sign confessions.
"The government of Vietnam needs to abide by internationally recognized standards for the protection of human rights. Having a sham court to convict people on trumped-up charges without (a) lawyer is not the conduct of a nation following the rule of law," Rep. Cao said in a statement his office provided to CNA on Thursday.
The congressmen’s letter asked for an investigation into the reported torture incidents and the death of the villager. They also asked that the villagers have “timely and sufficient access to legal representation” and a trial open to international observers.
Attorney Cu Huy Ha Vu, who was denied permission to defend the six, said an anonymous source from the Cam Le People’s Court had told his associates that the sentences had already been decided and approved by leaders of the local government and the Communist Party. Thus a defense lawyer was unnecessary.
He told the BBC that the “widespread” land seizures are the real cause of the Con Dau incident.
“However, the incident at Con Dau stands out from the others as the local authorities have employed police and armed forces to violently dismiss the protest. That’s why it has caused fury not only among Catholics but also among those with conscience,” he explained.
Thousands of Catholics attended two candlelight vigils in Hanoi and Saigon. They joined non-Catholics in prayers against the trial.
A letter from Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, the president of the Vietnamese Bishop’s Peace and Justice Commission, was read at the vigils. The letter challenged the legality of the government’s property seizure.
Skyrocketing property values have prompted the government to lay claim to many properties, citing the Communist principle that land is under the people’s ownership and is managed by the State. According to VietCatholic News, in practice the land is often seized and sold to developers who profit from their government ties.
Bishop Nguyen asked whether the decision of the local authorities to seize the parish properties to sell them to Sun Investment Corporation can be justified.
He asked why the government is “pushing the peaceful Con Dau parishioners into current tragic situation, causing one death, many arrests, others facing total loss of properties, and dozens fleeing to another country seeking asylum.” He also noted that the government is supposed to protect the rights and welfare of citizens.
The U.S. congressmen’s letter to Vietnam’s leaders said they looked forward to a “future prosperous” relationship between the United States and Vietnam.
“(B)ut we, and many others in the U.S. Congress, will continue to consider human rights as a vital U.S. interest and a prominent part of our bilateral relationship,” it concluded.
A spokesman for the U.S. embassy told AFP that the embassy is continuing to monitor the situation and had expressed concern over the use of force in the Con Dau incident and over reports of harsh treatment of detainees.
The embassy has urged “all sides” to exercise restraint.
Vietnam is presently hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the event.