The United States has lodged a "strong protest" with the Vietnamese government after policemen attacked an American diplomat while barring him from meeting with a dissident Catholic priest in central Vietnam.
Christian Marchant, a political officer with the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, was roughed up outside the home for retired priests in Hue where Nguyen Van Ly, 63, is being held under house arrest after being released from jail on medical parole last year.
“We are aware of and deeply concerned by the incident and have officially registered a strong protest with the Vietnamese government in Hanoi," a State Department official told RFA.
"We plan to raise the issue with [Vietnamese] Ambassador Phung in Washington today as well," the official said.
"Diplomats are entitled under international law to special protection against attack. The government of Vietnam has a responsibility to take appropriate steps to prevent any attack on the person, freedom, or dignity of diplomats," the official explained.
Ly, one of Vietnam's high-profile human rights activists, told RFA that the incident Wednesday was witnessed by hundreds of people.
"They all saw the police brutality toward Mr. Marchant," he said.
"They reported that he was wrestled down to the ground right in the middle of the road. His clothes got dirty. He stood back up and flicked off the dust."
A security officer covers the mouth of Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly after he shouts in protest during his trial at a court in Hue, March 30, 2007. Credit: AFP
Asked for his account of the incident, Ly said, "I saw him standing, not lying on the ground, but he looked really strenuously tired."
Ly, who was released from prison in March 2010, five years before the end of his eight-year sentence for “disseminating anti-government propaganda,” said the six-foot tall Marchant raised his camera high to take a picture but a policeman prevented him.
"I heard him say that [because] I was a prisoner, he could not allow [the] visit."
Ly said Marchant was bundled into a police car and taken away. It is believed that the diplomat was later released.
The embassy officer exchanged loud words with the police and resisted, Ly said. “But they put him in the car, closed the doors, and drove away."
Citizen journalists told RFA that about 30 to 40 policemen blocked the entrance to Ly's home in the diocese of the Archbishop of Hue, as Marchant, accompanied by a Vietnamese interpreter, went to meet with him at about 10 a.m.
Ly suffered two strokes in 2009 that left him partially paralyzed, and Western governments had demanded repeatedly that he be freed.
His trial grabbed world headlines as he tried to read out a poem criticizing Vietnam's communist authorities and was muzzled by police.
He has spent more than 15 years in prison since 1977.
His release from prison last year came after a group of U.S. senators wrote to Vietnam's President Nguyen Minh Triet, calling for his freedom.
The Roman Catholic Reverend Ly, a founding member of Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy movement, was considered a thorn in the side of the ruling Communist Party, as he advocated greater human rights in the one-party state.
Rights abusers targeted
Christian Marchant was roughed up outside the Hue Diocese while attempting to visit Father Ly. Credit: RFA
The attack on the U.S. diplomat came as a bill was introduced Wednesday in the U.S. Congress barring Vietnamese officials complicit in human rights abuses from coming to the United States and doing business with U.S. firms.
The bill, crafted by Republican Representative Ed Royce, is intended to target government officials, including police officers who commit abuses against political dissidents, according to a statement from Royce’s office.
"With the Communist government in Vietnam increasing its crackdown on human rights, Congress needs to respond. Those squashing freedom must pay a price," Royce said in the statement.
Royce also introduced a resolution urging the U.S. State Department to include Vietnam on a blacklist of countries guilty of "severe violations of religious freedoms."
The list of "countries of particular concern" was created in 1999, but Vietnam was removed in 2006.
Last month, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak said that freedom of expression and Internet freedom had been increasingly stifled in the Southeast Asian state in 2010 during a clampdown that saw almost 40 people arrested or convicted for the peaceful expression of their views.
He felt some restrictions on religious freedom had eased during his three years in Vietnam.
Hanoi however says concerns over freedom of expression are groundless.Reported by Thao Dao of RFA’s Vietnamese service and by Richard Finney. Translated by Viet Nguyen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.