Vietnam sends dissident priest to prison

Vietnam has sentenced a Catholic priest to eight years in prison for his pro-democracy activities as the communist regime stepped up its crackdown on dissidents calling for greater civil liberties and independent organisations, including opposition parties.

Father Nguyen Van Ly, a 60-year-old priest who previously served about 15 years in prison for criticising the government, was convicted of “conducting propaganda against the state”, in a half-day trial.

He was a founding member of “Block 8406”, a group that last April launched an internet petition signed by 118 pro-democracy advocates calling for an end to one-party rule and greater respect for human rights. In September, he launched the Vietnam Progression party, which has been outlawed by authorities.

Another four members of the VPP were also convicted, with punishments ranging from an 18-month suspended sentence, to six years’ imprisonment.

The trial came as Hanoi was talking about establishing full diplomatic relations with the Vatican, after Nguyen Tan Dung, the prime minister, recently made a groundbreaking visit to Pope Benedict. But the Vatican made little public comment about the case of Father Ly.

Human Rights Watch called the trial part of “the worst crackdown” on dissent in nearly 20 years in Vietnam, which joined the World Trade Organisation in January and is drawing a flood of new foreign investment.

As the economy motored ahead, authorities in recent months arrested two of Vietnam’s few practising human rights lawyers and several members of a new independent trade union, the United Workers-Farmers Organisation of Vietnam. Other free speech activists were detained and questioned.

Sophie Richardson, a Human Rights Watch analyst, predicted state repression would rise as increasingly affluent and emboldened Vietnamese demand greater political freedoms, including the right to free expression and fair, apolitical trials.

“The economic development that has taken place has led to real improvements in social freedoms, in ways similar to what we have seen in China,” Ms Richardson said. “But the fact of the matter is that there are basic, fundamental rights, mostly related to civil and political rights, that are guaranteed by the constitution, but in reality are as constrained as ever – if not more so.”

Just a year ago, Vietnam’s Communist rulers appeared to allowing greater space for public discussion of the normally taboo topic of politics, as it sought to woo international favour.

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