Vietnamese Court Upholds Sentences of Hoa Hao Buddhists Convicted For ‘Disrupting Public Order’

Security forces at a checkpoint near the courthouse prevent family members from attending the ‘public’ trial.

Vietnamese Hoa Hao Buddhists stage a protest against local authorities in Phuoc Hung village, Phuoc Hoa commune, of An Phu district in southwestern Vietnam's An Giang province, April 19, 2017.

An appeals court in Vietnam on Thursday upheld the jail sentences of six members of an unofficial branch of Vietnam’s Hoa Hao Buddhist community convicted in February in the country’s An Giang province on charges of disrupting public order during a confrontation with authorities last year, the daughter of one of the Buddhists said.

Bui Van Trung and Bui Van Tham were sentenced to six years in prison, Nguyen Hoang Nam was given four years, Le Thi Hong Hạnh and Bui Thi Bich Tuyen three years, and Le Thi Hen a two-year sentence suspended on account of her poor health.

Security forces set up checkpoints near the courthouse to prevent those who wanted to attend the “public” trial, Bui Van Trung’s daughter Bui Thi Tham, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

“They set up checkpoints about 500 meters (547 yards) from the courthouse,” she said.

“A number of relatives of the jailed members and authentic Hoa Hao Buddhist followers started out early and managed to get close to the courthouse, but then they [security forces] only allowed those with summons papers to enter,” she said.

But the guards did not immediately let those with summonses into the building, and they had to argue with them to enter, Tham said.

Prosecutors allowed arguments by the the convicts and their attorneys, unlike in the lower court trial where arguments from both side were not permitted, she said.

“The judges let the witnesses talk a lot, and when the lawyers asked them questions, the judges told the witnesses not to answer them,” she said.

Case of religious repression

During the trial at the People’s Court in the province’s An Phu district on Feb. 9, Bui Van Trung and the others argued that the case involved religious repression, not public order, and Trung demanded another trial based on correct charges according to the law.

The convictions stem from an incident on April 18, 2017, when traffic police at a checkpoint stopped the Hoa Hao Buddhists from going to the Bui family’s home to observe the death anniversary of a friend, though authorities did not issue any citations.

Officers seized several motorbikes that the members of the group were riding along with their registration papers, and men in civilian clothes who accompanied the police threatened to beat them.

The following day, traffic police at the checkpoint instructed the men in civilian clothes to impound the motorbikes of two other Hoa Hao Buddhist followers they had stopped. When Bui Van Tham tried to prevent the men from taking the motorbikes, they assaulted him.

In response, dozens of Hoa Hao Buddhist staged a public protest against what they called government repression.

Tham was later charged with disrupting public order under Article 245 of Vietnam’s Penal Code and resisting people on public duty under Article 257, while the other five were charged with disrupting public order.

On Feb. 8, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Vietnam to suspend charges against the six and investigate whether police actions against them were taken for discriminatory reasons or religious persecution.

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 by 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 An Nguyen. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.