A court in Vietnam’s Central Highlands on Wednesday sentenced eight ethnic minority Montagnards affiliated with an unregistered Catholic church to between three and 11 years in prison for “undermining unity” in the authoritarian state.
The Gia Lai provincial court said some of the eight had worked with a banned exile organization to establish an independent state for indigenous peoples in the Central Highlands, according to state media.
The others were accused of inciting thousands of protesters to demonstrate against their relocation from their village to make way for a power plant in 2008.
All eight—who are between 32 and 73 years old—were convicted under Article 87 of the penal code, a national security provision that forbids “undermining the [national] unity policy” by “sowing division” or ethnic or religious hatred.
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar, who rights groups say suffer extreme persecution.
In the early 2000s, thousands in the region staged violent protests against the confiscation of their ancestral lands and religious controls, prompting a brutal crackdown by security forces that saw hundreds of Montagnards charged with national security crimes.
Scott Johnson of the Montagnard Foundation, a U.S.-based rights group, said Vietnam’s jailing of members of the ethnic minority for national security crimes and linking them to alleged overseas separatist groups was unjustified.
“In reality all these ethnic people … want are indigenous land rights and basic human rights,” he said.
“They are not terrorists, they are not separatists, and they do not seek an independent state.”
“Basically the Vietnamese government is seeking to crush the independent underground house church movement [in the region],” he said.
Vietnamese state media identified the eight convicted on Wednesday as Runh, Byuk, Jonh, Dinh Hron, and Dinh Lu from Gia Lai province and A Hyum, A Tach, and Y Gyin from Kon Tum province.
Vietnam News Agency reported that according to the indictment, in 2002 Y Gyin had “spread rumors” that the Virgin Mary had appeared in Ha Mon, where authorities were planning to build a hydroelectricity plant.
The others joined him in “enticing” thousands of people to protest against the plant in 2008, and the same year, A Hyum contacted an alleged exiled armed separatist organization—the Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Peoples, or FULRO—to ask for help, it said.
FULRO, founded in the 1950s, was a resistance army that fought on the side of United States and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War before officially disbanding in the 1990s. Vietnam has asserted that rights groups working on Central Highlands issues are part of an ongoing separatist movement linked to FULRO, but the groups reject the claims, saying they are working nonviolently for human rights.
FULRO had instructed the eight men to “prepare to establish” a separate state in the Central Highlands, and they started several branches of the organization in the region, state media reported.
Ha Mon Catholics
According to previous Human Rights Watch reports, Runh, Jonh, and Byuk were taken into custody in May last year for being associated with the unregistered Ha Mon Catholic sect, which Y Gyin founded around 1999.
The group said that authorities have painted the Ha Mon sect as a “false religion” that is being taken advantage of by FULRO to undermine national security.
While Protestant Montagnards have faced religious repression for many years, Catholic Montagnards have more recently become a target for persecution by the government, according to the group.
Reported by Thanh Truc for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.