Catholic parishioners from Hung Nguyen district in north-central Vietnam’s Nghe An province have petitioned provincial police to take action against local officials they say ordered thugs to beat them as they tried to make improvements on disputed land.
The Dec. 17 attack by assailants wearing Vietnam’s national flag over their shirts in Hung Nguyen’s Hung Tay commune followed an early morning attempt by Ke Gai parishioners under the Vinh diocese to dig a ditch on farmland subject to floods, which is claimed by both their church and local authorities.
The beating took place in front of police, who did nothing to stop it, witnesses said, and left one parishioner unconscious.
On Monday, parishioners delivered petitions to the Nghe An provincial police, accusing them of “covering up” for local officials they say orchestrated the December attack by blaming the incident on the church.
According to the petition, the parishioners had sent a complaint to provincial police on Jan. 18 fingering Hung Tay commune chairman Nguyen Van Thu and commune police chief Luc for “injuring villagers and damaging their assets,” “disturbing public order,” “abuse of power,” and “neglecting the injured.”
The provincial police office acknowledged receipt of the complaint in a Jan. 29 letter, but last week, the office instead summoned four parishioners for questioning on Monday over their alleged involvement in the Dec. 17 incident. All four refused to meet with police, and parishioners responded with their petition accusing authorities of trying to make the complaint disappear by threatening them.
Father Nguyen Duc Nhan, who is in charge of Ke Gai parish, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that he had personally delivered a petition to a representative of the provincial police on Monday morning.
“The parishioners are the victims—you can see from videos of the incident that the people from the ‘Red Flags’ group and the police chief attacked them,” he said.
“They beat one person so badly that he passed out right in the road,” he added.
Nguyen Van An, a parishioner who was summoned last week for allegedly “holding people hostage” at the time of the December incident, denied the claims, which he said police had based on his involvement in asking local officials to sign a statement about what happened that day.
“Now that we are accusing the village and district’s officials of mistreating people, they turned the tables and are accusing us of keeping people hostage,” he said.
“We only asked the commune party chief and police chief to sign our report. I myself signed as a witness, because I was there.”
One of the other three parishioners was served with a summons for questioning over allegedly “fighting” during the Dec. 17 incident, but the other two were not at home when police tried to deliver their notices.
An said the police think that by threatening him and the other three parishioners, they can get the Ke Gai community to relinquish their claims to the disputed land.
“Now that we have sent our complaint about their beating our villagers, I think they summoned me to try to get us to compromise and withdraw our complaint—to give them the land,” he said.
“Or maybe there have been so many issues surrounding the Vinh diocese recently, they are trying to threaten us, using me and some others as an example to intimidate other parishioners so people will stop speaking out.”
An acknowledged that the summonses had “made parishioners worried and frustrated” because the provincial police “have done the opposite of what they stand for—ensuring that people abide by the law.”
“Instead, they have trod on the law and the truth,” he said.
“They abuse the people, and turn them into prisoners on a waiting list.”
‘Red Flags’ groups
Government-supporting “Red Flags” groups now frequently mobilize to attack Catholic priests and parishioners in Vietnam in what social media users and rights groups describe as state-sponsored abuse in the one-party communist state.
In February, parents of Catholic schoolchildren barred from school in the Dien Doai commune of Nghe An province were attacked outside school gates by government-linked thugs when they sought a meeting with school administrators.
Meanwhile, in October 2017, two priests from Vinh diocese were surrounded by a mob of 300 waving red flags, while in May hundreds of thugs in Nghe An attacked a group of Catholic parishioners, including women and children, sending dozens to the hospital.
In March, U.S.-based rights group Boat People SOS (BPSOS) urged State Department officials to voice U.S. concern over the rise in Vietnam of activist groups tied to the harassment of dissidents and religious communities, ahead of a U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue scheduled for later this month.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.