Thursday, January 27, 2005

Vietnam: HRW report on persecution of Montagnard Christians.

Date: Thursday 27 January 2005
Subj: Vietnam: HRW report on persecution of Montagnard Christians.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

Vietnam: HRW report on persecution of Montagnard Christians.

The purpose of this posting is simply to promote a reading of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Briefing Paper of 10 January 2005 entitled "Vietnam: Torture, Arrests of Montagnard Christians", and subtitled "Cambodia Slams the Door on new Asylum Seekers".

A summary and link to the full text can be found on-line at:


According to HRW, more than 200 Montagnard Christians were arrested in the highlands in November and December 2004. HRW is concerned that they were arrested because of religious activity, complaints about land rights, or their contacts with Montagnard advocacy groups overseas.

Multitudes of Montagnard Christians, many of them house church leaders who were organising Christmas activities and celebrations, were arrested apparently because the authorities were concerned that the Montagnards might be organising demonstrations.

As HRW notes, "Those who end up being sentenced to prison terms will likely be charged with 'national security' crimes, such as 'undermining the policy of state and party unity' (article 87 of Vietnam’s Penal Code) or 'undermining public security'. (article 89)."


The HRW report also addresses the issue of torture and abuse in detention. A 25-year-old Mnong man was arrested on 10 April 2004 on suspicion of being an organiser of the 2004 Easter demonstration. He was first beaten and kicked into unconsciousness by the arresting officers, before being taken to the district prison in Dak Mil where police tortured him over three days in an attempt to extract a "confession". The police pulled out a toenail and beat him with batons until they knocked out a front tooth. They threatened him with death and with electrocution (apparently a common torture in Vietnamese prisons). He was eventually transferred to the provincial prison at Dak Nong and placed in solitary confinement, in appalling conditions, where regularly he was severely beaten by interrogators. His suffering was such he was convinced he would die.

One activist with the Dega Church movement who was arrested on his way to a wedding in Dak Doa district, was taken to the district police station where police, in an effort to extract from him names of other Dega Church activists, tortured and beat him for hours. He describes the worst part as being, "...that they forced my three-year-old son to sit on my lap the entire time, even though he was crying uncontrollably." He was released that evening, but the following day, the police surrounded his house to re-arrest him, so he fled. This man has not seen his wife or son since that fateful day as he spent the next two years hiding in the forests of Vietnam before fleeing to Cambodia in April 2004.

Montagnards who flee to Cambodia only to be forcibly returned experience appalling violent mistreatment and torture at the hands of the authorities, as do those who are suspected of assisting their escape or "organising illegal migration" in contravention of article 91 of Vietnam's legal code. Fingernails are removed, fingers and feet are tortured, beatings are severe and bloody, causing shocking injuries.

HRW interviewed a Mnong man from Dak Nong who helped his father, a prominent Dega church activist, hide in the forest and then escape to Cambodia in early 2004. In late April 2004, he was arrested by six police officers as he was returning home from his farm. This man details some of the terrible violence meted out to prisoners, young and old. He was eventually told he would go to jail for eight years, but he managed to escape one day when the prison guards were drunk. He fled to Cambodia in August 2004.


Section four of the report deals with the authorities' violent crackdown on the 2004 Easter demonstrations by Montagnards in the highlands. The Montagnards were calling for religious freedom, the return of ancestral lands, freedom of movement, and the release of Montagnard prisoners of conscience, i.e. basic human rights.

An ethnic Vietnamese man who watched the events from his second storey apartment described the Easter crackdown as, " a war. The police were really mad and really beat the protesters. Some local Vietnamese joined in – they were mad too. The Montagnards only had stones and sticks to defend themselves." Another eye witness told HRW that the police provided a whole truckload of wooden clubs for the Vietnamese to use against the Montagnards. Another eye witness reported that even after the demonstrators had dispersed, the police went around beating "every person they met" and destroying many houses as they went house to house hunting for people.


Section five of the HRW report deals specifically with religious persecution. HRW reports that Vietnamese officials are forcing Montagnards to renounce Christianity in public "self-criticism" or "public denunciation" sessions, or in written pledges.

There are 10 officially registered Christian churches in Dak Lak and Gia Lai for as many as 220,000 Christians. All unregistered religious meeting and activity is prohibited. Pastors, whose movements are tightly controlled, are put under immense pressure to publicly denounce Christianity.


The other issue the HRW report deals with is the issue of the rights of Montagnard refugees. The HRW report examines the Vietnamese authorities' mistreatment of the family members of Montagnard refugees, their mistreatment of Montagnard refugees who repatriate voluntarily, the severe mistreatment and torture of refugees who are forcibly returned as well as those who assist their escape, and Cambodia's responsibility to give refuge to those fleeing persecution in Vietnam.


The HRW report is compelling and should be widely distributed.

Vietnam is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and should be held accountable. Otherwise these rights covenants are not worth the paper they are printed on.

- Elizabeth Kendal