Human rights organizations on Thursday condemned the decision by a Vietnamese court to jail eight ethnic Hmong only one day after a U.N. body dismissed a report by the government which claimed authorities practice no racial discrimination in the country.
The group of eight was convicted of partaking in a “separatist ethnic movement” following their involvement in a massive religious gathering in May last year, according to a state media report on Wednesday. The Hmong are a mostly Christian ethnic minority in Communist-led Vietnam.
In a joint statement, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights slammed the conviction as it came on the heels of charges by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that the Vietnamese government might be misusing criminal laws against some ethnic minorities.
“[We] regret that Vietnam’s very first gesture, following the publication of the CERD’s conclusions, was to condemn eight ethnic Hmongs on March 13, 2012 to prison sentences of two years to 30 months (followed by two years probationary detention) following demonstrations in the northern province of Dien Bien in April-May 2011.”
The two groups also criticized the decision by authorities to break up the nonviolent demonstration with force.
“The Vietnamese authorities deployed special force units and armed helicopters to crush these peaceful protests of several thousands of Hmongs,” the statement said.
In May 2011, thousands of Hmong believed to be members of a religious sect gathered in Vietnam's remote northern Dien Bien province where they claimed a “messiah” would arrive to establish a Hmong kingdom.
The gathering was dispersed by authorities in circumstances which remain unclear, although there were unconfirmed reports that some Hmong were killed or wounded by troops in the process. Vietnamese officials have not said whether the military was involved in the crackdown.
A local government leader told an army newspaper that the protesters had been armed.
The eight defendants, who appeared in a Dien Bien court on Tuesday, were charged with “disturbing security,” according to the official Nhan Dan newspaper.
Two of them received two-and-a-half year jail terms while the other six were given two-year sentences. All eight will undergo two years of house arrest following their release.
The breakup of the Hmong demonstration was Vietnam’s worst case of ethnic tension since some 2,000 mostly Protestant Montagnards fled to Cambodia over 2001 and 2004 after troops crushed protests in the country’s Central Highlands.
Some of the Hmong and Montagnards helped U.S. forces against North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and faced retribution after the communist takeover.
International Federation for Human Rights President Souhayr Belhassen accused Vietnam of using a double standard in how it presents the status of human rights in the country.
Vietnam last month published a periodic report on its implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in which the government claimed that there was no racial discrimination, and provided no cases of abuse.
“Vietnam is as consistent in abusing the rights of its citizens as it is inconsistent in making sure its laws and practices comply with all the international human rights instruments that it ratified,” Belhassen said.
The CERD dismissed Vietnam’s report Wednesday, noting numerous reports of forced displacement of ethnic minorities, “confiscation of ancestral lands without prior consent and appropriate compensation,” discrimination on racial and religious grounds, and forced repatriation of ethnic minorities seeking refuge abroad.
It also expressed concerns about “a sizeable socio-economic gap between disadvantaged ethnic minorities and the majority Kinh,” and a “lack of effective investigation” by authorities into allegations of persecution of ethnic minorities or “effective remedies provided for the victims.”
Vo Van Ai, president of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, applauded the CERD for urging Vietnam to “do what all Vietnamese wish for deep inside—to dismantle the totalitarian and arbitrary state.”
“The racial discrimination suffered by Vietnam’s ethnic minorities is extremely serious, and cannot end unless the mechanisms of state repression have been removed,” he said.
Last week the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Vietnam Human Rights Bill, which prohibits any increase in nonhumanitarian assistance to the Vietnamese government unless “substantial progress” is made in “establishing a democracy and promoting human rights.”
In addition to calling on the Vietnamese government to respect the human rights of its ethnic groups, the bill, authored by Congressman Chris Smith, urges authorities to respect the freedoms of religion and speech.
It also requires the government to repeal and revise laws that criminalize peaceful dissent, independent media, unsanctioned religious activity, and nonviolent demonstrations, in accordance with international human rights standards.
“It is imperative that the United States government send an unequivocal message to the Vietnamese regime that it must end its human rights abuses against its own citizens,” Chris Smith told the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the bill’s introduction.
“Despite assertions by some that increased trade with Vietnam would lead to greater freedom and democracy, the Vietnamese people instead are suffering from more repression and denial of their fundamental human rights.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.