A provincial court in northern Vietnam on Friday sentenced a Hmong Christian to 18 months in jail for defying a government campaign forcing the ethnic minority group to return to older funeral practices now considered wasteful by many in the community.
Hoang Van Sang, 60, was handed an 18-month jail term by a court in Tuyen Quang province for “abusing democratic rights to infringe on the State and others’ benefits” under Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code, his lawyer Tran Thu Nam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Friday.
The charges appeared to stem from Sang’s efforts to raise funds within his community to build a funeral home to meet Hmong reforms for caring for and burying the dead, Nam said.
Community members “contributed money to build the funeral house and assigned Hoang Van Sang to buy materials for it,” Nam said. “No one demanded that he return any money. There is no victim here.”
Nam added that he had urged the court and local prosecutor’s office in considering Sang’s case to hand down only a warning rather than a criminal conviction.
“Hoang Van Sang had only committed an administrative mistake by building the house without official approval from the local government,” he said.
Sang, a follower of reformed burial and wedding practices proposed by Hmong Christian leader Duong Van Minh—now in ill health in Hanoi—had at first faced a jail term of up to 21 months, but the sentence was reduced to 18 months following a hearing, Nam said.
Group refuses aid
The charges against Sang appeared also to be tied to a growing refusal by Hmong to accept grain seed, subsidies for food or schooling, or other state benefits—a move seen by authorities as interference with government development policies, Nam said.
But Hmong community members speaking at the trial said they had not been influenced by Sang.
“They said they had headaches from constantly listening to the local government’s public service announcements and felt that the Hmong were being criticized. That is why they don’t want to receive any support from the government,” Nam said.
Six Hmong, including Sang, have now been arrested by authorities on charges connected to the Hmong campaign, with three scheduled to stand trial on March 18 and 20.
Officials in the Northern Highlands have cracked down on reformed burial practices in recent years, launching a campaign to force Hmong Christians to return to old traditions involving expensive, week-long funerals, rights groups have said.
Minh, 52, whose calls for reformed burial practices have been drawing a large following among Hmong Christians since 1989, now suffers from a kidney ailment but has been denied medical treatment at hospitals in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.
In 2008, authorities in Cao Bang, Bac Kan, Thai Nguyen, and Tuyen Quang provinces began an “aggressive campaign” to force Hmong Christians to return to old burial practices by demolishing shared funeral storage facilities that villages had built to accommodate the new practice, according to overseas rights group Boat People SOS (BPSOS).
After a number of Hmong villages rebuilt their funeral storage facilities in 2012, the authorities last year sent in plainclothes police and thugs to destroy the facilities and arrested a number of Hmong, the group said.
Meanwhile, in October and November, at least eight Hmong followers of Minh’s were arrested as they protested for freedom of religion and belief, Vietnamese citizen journalism blog Dan Lam Bao reported.
And on Nov. 23, police forces surrounded an ethnic Hmong village in Cao Bang province and demolished their funeral storage facility, in an incident that was followed by an attack on another Hmong village in the province the next day, Bao said.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.