A key church leader in Vietnam has asked authorities to delay the trial of six people held since last May following bloody clashes with the police over the seizure of their land by the government.
In a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the government committee for religious affairs, Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop said the court hearing, scheduled on Oct. 27, "must be delayed until all questions are answered."
Nguyen, who was appointed recently by the Catholic bishops in Vietnam to head the new Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace to protect church interests, questioned the manner in which the land was seized in Con Dau and the inadequate compensation provided to the people.
This is the first high-profile statement by the church since the land dispute erupted between local Catholics and authorities in Con Dau in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang early this year, when the government decided to demolish all the houses in the parish to make way for a tourist resort.
A particularly coveted area is a 10-hectare (25-acre) cemetery, located one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the parish church and believed to be 135 years old.
Burial site clashes
Con Dau Parish is located just south of Da Nang in central Vietnam. Credit: RFA
The six, who have been held in prison without trial so far, were arrested on May 4, a day after bloody clashes when police attacked mourners attending the funeral of Maria Tan, an 82-year-old woman, in a bid to prevent her burial.
Authorities had posted a sign barring burials at the cemetery about two
weeks earlier because the land was to be transferred to make way for
the eco-tourism project.
One person who participated in the funeral died in July allegedly after being interrogated and beaten by police, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said.
The six were arrested for "disorderly conduct” and “attacking state security officers,” and authorities are believed to have extracted confessions from the accused allegedly under torture.
U.S. lawmakers at a hearing on the case in August had called for a U.N. probe into the violence.
The Vietnamese government has denied any injuries in what it terms a land dispute, describing accounts of mistreatment as an attempt to "smear Vietnam." 'Questions unanswered'
The members of of Con Dau Parish, along with the relatives of the six, had written an open letter to Nguyen and other leaders of the Catholic Church asking for help in their fight for justice. They also expressed concern that the six were being threatened in prison not to hire lawyers to defend themselves.
About a week before the trial, two lawyers who had volunteered to defend the six were denied permission to defend them.
"There are still a number of questions that have not been answered," said Nguyen, who heads the Vinh diocese.
"As the people are forced to sell their land, the government policy should be to show respect to the people and help the people to have a better and stable life. The government must have a policy to help the people."
"I want the government to answer that."Reported by Gia Minh for RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated by Khanh Nguyen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.