A Vietnamese Catholic priest and members of his parish in north-central Vietnam’s Nghe An province have submitted a letter to local authorities asking that they be allowed to provide testimony on behalf of another parishioner whom authorities are prosecuting on phony charges related to a land dispute incident.
Father Nguyen Duc Nhan and the members of Ke Gai parish under the Vinh diocese in Hung Nguyen district’s Hung Tay commune submitted the letter on May 11 about fellow church member Vo Dinh Phuc, accused of “illegally detaining other people.”
They made the request just four days after they 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 claimed both by church and local authorities.
The thugs, known as "Red Flags" for the national flag emblems they wear on their shirts, attacked the parishioners on Dec. 17 as they dug an irrigation ditch on the land to prevent their fields from flooding.
The beatings, which left one parishioner unconscious, took place in front of police who did nothing to stop them, witnesses told RFA's Vietnamese Service.
The provincial police office acknowledged receipt of the complaint in a Jan. 29 letter, but instead summoned four parishioners on May 3 for questioning about their alleged involvement in the Dec. 17 incident.
The four refused to meet with police, and parishioners responded with their petition accusing authorities of trying to make the complaint disappear by threatening them.
Nghe An police sent two more summonses with a more serious but phony charge that the parishioners had “illegally detained other people.”
One of these notices, sent to Vo Dinh Phuc on May 9, said that he would receive notification of authorities’ decision on the charge.
Phuc said the accusations are inaccurate.
“I am a common peasant,” he told RFA. “Until now, I haven’t had a criminal record. I am both a good citizen and a Catholic.”
“On that day [Dec. 17], a person was beaten unconscious,” he said. “I felt so upset and intervened without beating or detaining any others. Now they [the police] are accusing me of committing such an act, and it is unjustifiable.”
“They [the police] have not sent any more summonses, and instead are proceeding with prosecution,” said Nguyen Van An, another church member who received a summons.
Citing Article 88
Responding to the trumped-up charge, the parishioners in their letter asked that they be allowed to testify on Phuc’s behalf based on Article 88 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code which says authorities proceeding with a court case are entitled to ask government services, organizations, and individuals to provide evidence to help clarify the case.
“This is an act of trampling on justice that will set a dangerous precedent,” Nhan told RFA. “It is so difficult to live in a lawless society. Human rights, truth, and justice are trampled.”
Government-supporting “Red Flags” groups 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 country.
Vietnamese attorney Vo An Don told RFA thạt authorities routinely level ambiguous accusations such as “disrupting social order, “opposing enforcement officials,” or “abusing the rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state” against citizens as a pretext for suppression.
In March, U.S.-based rights group Boat People SOS urged U.S. State Department officials to voice 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 that will be held on May 23 in Hanoi.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.