Four family members belonging to an unofficial branch of Vietnam’s Hoa Hao Buddhist community were convicted on Friday in the country’s An Giang province on charges of disrupting public order during a confrontation with authorities at their home last year.
Bui Van Trung, the family father, and his son Bui Van Tham were both sentenced to six years, while his daughter Bui Thi Bich Nguyen received a three-year term, another daughter, Bui Thi Kim Thoa, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“Our mother, Le Thi Hien, was given a two-year suspended sentence because she is ill,” Thoa said.
Family friends and co-religionists Nguyen Hoang Nam and Le Thi Hong Hanh were also convicted in the case and were sentenced to four and three years respectively, she added.
“At the trial, both the defendants and our lawyers said there was not enough evidence to convict them, but the judge would not listen to the lawyers’ arguments, and witnesses for the prosecution would not answer our lawyers’ questions,” Thoa said.
“Bui Van Trung, my father, said before he was sentenced that this was a case of religious repression and not a public-order case, and he demanded another trial including correct charges according to the law. Other defendants said the same thing.”
“These sentences are too severe,” she said.
Though police tried at first to block other Hoa Hao followers from attending the trial, they protested and were eventually allowed in, Thoa said.
Family, friends harassed
On April 18, 2017, traffic police accompanied by unidentified men in civilian clothes stopped Hoa Hao Buddhists going to the Bui family’s home to observe the death anniversary of a friend, confiscating motorbikes and registration papers, family members told RFA in earlier reports.
Several motorbikes were seized even though their owners presented papers proving proper registration, Bui Van Trung’s daughter Bui Thich Tuyen said.
Two months later, on June 26, 2017, Trung and his son Bui Van Tham were arrested by security officials and unidentified civilians while returning from a visit to a neighboring commune, Tuyen said.
“On their way back, hundreds of people mobbed them and took them away without showing an order for their arrest,” she said.
Vietnam’s government officially recognizes the Hoa Hao religion, which has some two million followers across the country, but imposes harsh controls on dissenting Hoa Hao groups, including the sect in An Giang province, that do not follow the state-sanctioned branch.
Rights groups say that authorities in An Giang routinely harass followers of the unapproved groups, prohibiting public readings of the Hoa Hao founder’s writings and discouraging worshipers from visiting Hoa Hao pagodas in An Giang and other provinces.
The U.S. State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report, issued in August 2017, said that Vietnamese government authorities restricted the activities of religious groups, assaulting and detaining church members, restricting their travel, and confiscating church land for development projects.
Groups not registered with the state were especially severely treated, the State Department said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Richard Finney.