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Human Rights Watch urges Vietnam atrocities investigation

New reports that dozens of Christians were killed by government soldiers during peaceful protests in Vietnam's central highlands this Easter have prompted calls for an independent investigation.

The Tablet reported in April that Vietnamese officials beat dozens of demonstrators to death when thousands of indigenous Christians - Montagnards - gathered to protest at religious repression and the confiscation of ancestral lands on 10-11 April.

Sam Zarifi, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, said Montagnards were still unable freely to leave their villages, and are threatened with violent reprisals if they try to relay news of the atrocities to the outside world. In an 11-page briefing paper, the New York-based rights group has cited eyewitness testimony from Montagnards and translations of handwritten reports by church leaders in Dak Lak province documenting alleged widespread abuses.

The reports corroborate earlier accounts that hundreds of Montagnards were wounded and dozens were killed in Dak Lak, Gia Lai and Lam Dong provinces on 10-11 April by security forces and civilians acting on their behalf. Vietnam's Communist regime, however, insists only two people died, and said the demonstrators were violent extremists. The Government news agency has vowed to punish severely anyone inciting further unrest in the region.

In response to calls for independent verifications of the Easter weekend reports, the Vietnamese Government organised carefully monitored visits to the highlands by a Vatican delegation, diplomats and UN agencies, but Montagnards interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that Vietnamese officials prevented them from providing an accurate picture of events.

Since Easter weekend, there has been a massive increase in the numbers of soldiers and police in the region. Hundreds of security forces have been deployed to search villages, farms, and forests for Montagnards who have fled from their villages. These are being arrested to prevent them from crossing the Cambodian border to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch reports.

During a visit to London on 25 May, Vietnam's Foreign Minister, Nguyen Dy Nien, gave assurances that policies were being put in place to stabilise the situation facing Christians in the central highlands. He also said there was a real possibility that Fr Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest imprisoned in 2001 for speaking out against religious repression, might be released.

Human Rights Watch urges Vietnam atrocities investigation (The Tablet 5/6/04)

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