Religious leader faces new charge in case that brought 5-year sentence

Le Tung Van, the 92-year-old head of an independent Buddhist community, has been under house arrest since 2022.
By RFA Vietnamese
2024.04.19
Religious leader faces new charge in case that brought 5-year sentence Le Tung Van rests on a swing bed as a police officer visits him in the southern province of Long An in 2020.
(Vietnam State media photo)

Investigators in southern Vietnam charged the 92-year-old leader of a Buddhist community with incest on Friday after gathering evidence – including blood samples – from members of the church, state media reported.

Le Tung Van of the the Peng Lei House Buddhist Church in Long An province has previously been at the center of allegations of incest, fraud and abusing freedoms. In 2022, he was sentenced to five years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms.” 

The provincial Security Investigation Agency said it launched the new case after receiving reports of Van’s alleged incestuous behavior, according to the Vietnam News Agency.

The new charge also comes a week after two of his defense lawyers were stripped of their membership in the Ho Chi Minh Bar Association – a decision they warned could precede new action against Van.

An attorney who spoke anonymously to Radio Free Asia for security reasons said Van hasn’t been required to serve the 2022 prison sentence due to his old age and frail health.

The attorney added that the new charges announced on Friday were “vague” and appeared to use old evidence.

Police forcibly collected DNA samples from members residing in the Peng Lei Buddhist House Church at least three times in 2021 and 2022, including one occasion where they obtained blood samples in the name of COVID-19 testing.

Days after the church was searched in January 2022, authorities announced the “abusing democratic freedoms” charge against Van. He was accused of taking advantage of religion and philanthropy for their own personal benefit, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Van was also charged with incest and fraud, but these charges were later dropped.  

The complaint was reportedly made by the government-recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, the state-backed religious entity, and a member of the Sangha’s board of directors, according to the commission.

Vietnam maintains strict laws on religious activity that require groups to be supervised by government-controlled management boards. The Peng Lei Buddhist House Church is an independent Buddhist community.

Defense lawyers seek asylum

Van was indicted in June 2022 after authorities accused him of directing other defendants to create videos and write an article that insulted Duc Hoa District Police and the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, according to the commission. The five-year sentence was issued the following month.

Van has appealed his conviction and sentencing, and he’s been under house arrest since then. Authorities have continued to investigate the incest allegations.

In October 2022, one of Van’s defense attorneys, Dang Dinh Manh, criticized the way that blood samples were taken from Van and his family members. 

Samples should adhere to criminal procedural regulations and medical standards and the consent of the individuals or their legal guardians should be obtained, he said.

Van’s lawyers have also criticized authorities for preventing them from meeting with Van and other accused church members.

Last year, Dang Dinh Manh and two other defense attorneys for the church – Nguyen Van Mieng and Dao Kim Lan – sought political asylum in the United States after they received a police summons related to accusations of “abusing democratic freedoms” during their legal defense of Van and the church.

Last week, the Ho Chi Minh Bar Association announced its decision to revoke the membership of Dang Dinh Manh and Nguyen Van Mieng for not paying fees. 

Both lawyers told RFA last week that the decision could pave the way for authorities to take new action in their investigation of the members of Peng Lei Buddhist House Church. 

RFA’s attempts to contact Long An Police at the provided phone number went unanswered on Friday. 

Additionally, RFA was unable to reach anyone from the Peng Lei Buddhist House Church to verify Friday’s state media reports.

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Matt Reed.

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