Vietnam Holding Hoa Hao Hermit in Solitary Confinement: Religious Freedom Group

Vuong Van Tha was taken into custody in May, after police laid siege to his home.

Vuong Van Tha is taken into custody by police officers in An Giang province’s An Phu district, May 18, 2017.

Authorities in Vietnam have held a member of an unsanctioned sect of Hoa Hao Buddhism in solitary confinement since his arrest in May, according to a group that promotes religious freedom in the country, which said detaining him amounted to a violation of the country’s constitution.

The Interfaith Council of Vietnam said in a statement issued Wednesday that police had taken Buddhist hermit Vuong Van Tha into custody along with his son and two of his cousins after laying siege to the family’s home in southern Vietnam’s An Giang province on May 18.

At the time, the council said, hundreds of people—including police, plainclothes officers, and thugs—used a water cannon to attack Tha’s house, where nine members of his family were staying, including a man older than 80, a six-month-old child, three women and three young boys.

The assault sent the women and children to the hospital to get treatment for their injuries, it said, while authorities in An Giang’s An Phu district arrested Tha, his son Vuong Van Thuan, and his cousins Nguyen Nhat Truong and Nguyen Nhat Thuong.

The family was not notified of the whereabouts of Tha and his three relatives until receiving an announcement more than three months later, informing them that they had been detained at Bang Lang Prison, in An Giang’s Long Xuyen district.

Speaking on Thursday, Hoa Hao Buddhism representative of the Interfaith Council of Vietnam Nguyen Van Dien told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that his organization had contacted the An Giang provincial police about Tha’s status, but that the authorities were “keeping it a secret” and “wouldn’t give us any information.”

“Other detainees told their relatives who came to visit them that Tha had been put in solitary confinement and was complaining that he couldn’t take it anymore,” Dien said, adding that the relatives had then informed Tha’s family.

In its statement on Wednesday, the Interfaith Council of Vietnam called the measures taken by authorities against Tha and his family “unnecessary” and “in violation of the freedoms of speech and expression granted to Vietnamese citizens according to Vietnam’s constitution and international law.”

Tha was released from prison in August 2016 after serving a three-year sentence for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens” under Article 258 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Prior to his arrest in May, Tha had used a loudspeaker to speak out against what he called the “mistakes and crimes” of Vietnam’s government. Since the May attack, authorities have cut off the electricity and water to his home and subjected his family members to frequent harassment.

Catholic petition

The report on Tha’s arrest and detention followed a petition sent last week by a group of Catholic priests from the Vinh Diocese in Nghe An’s Dong Thap district, calling on authorities to restore stability to the area of Dong Kieu parish, in nearby Dien Chau district.

The petition, dated Sept. 22, said there had been a “misunderstanding” over banners hung on two pillars in the parish that led to a group of thugs attacking the homes and businesses of parishioners with guns and rocks from Sept. 1-20, and causing substantial property damage.

On Sept. 20, the petition said, a group of people carrying Vietnam’s national flag and banners, and shouting slogans, marched into the area around Dong Kieu church, demanding that its priest Nguyen Ngoc Ngu leave the area. The mob “smashed and shot holy articles with guns,” it said.

According to the priests, the events of Sept. 1-20 constituted an “abuse of religious freedom” according to Vietnam’s Constitution, as well as a violation of international laws on human rights.

The petition called on the authorities of Nghe An province and Dien Chau district, as well as all related departments, to investigate the incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice in order to restore stability to the area and put an end to the “physical and emotional terrorism” endured by the parishioners.

Speaking on Thursday, Father Peter Nguyen Van Liem, one of the petition’s signatories, told RFA that there had been no official response to their request.

“Usually, they will send a notice or invite us to a meeting to resolve the problem,” he said.

“However, in the case of Dong Kieu parish, we have seen nothing done yet.”

Harsh controls

Vietnam’s government officially recognizes the Catholic and Hoa Hao religions but imposes harsh controls on dissenting groups that do not follow state-sanctioned branches.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report, released last month, Vietnam continued to harass religious groups last year, though the severity of their treatment “varied from region to region and among the central, provincial, and local levels.”

Government authorities continued to restrict the activities of religious groups, assaulting and detaining church members, restricting their travel, and confiscating church land for development projects, the report said.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.