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Vietnam releases dissident priest

Vietnam announced yesterday that it would release two of its best-known dissidents from prison, including 58 year old Fr Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, who angered authorities when he gave written testimony in 2001 to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom urging the United States not to ratify a bilateral trade agreement until the communist government improved its human rights record.

Fr Ly, together with physician Nguyen Dan Que, 63, is set to be freed along with 8323 other prisoners before the Lunar New Year holiday, or Tet, which begins on 9 February. The announcement was made yesterday by Vice Foreign Minister Le Van Bang announced at a press conference.

Both dissidents have been outspoken advocates of religious freedom and democracy and have openly criticised the government for its poor human rights record. Five other inmates jailed for violating national security laws were also released.

"We are absolutely delighted at this turn of events," said Jared Genser, of Washington-based Freedom Now, an organization that represented the two dissidents' families. "It's clear Nguyen Dan Que and Father Nguyen Van Ly benefited from a massive push from around the world to secure their releases."

Fr Ly was sentenced the same year to 15 years in prison in 2001, but the term was reduced to 10 years in 2003. His case drew attention from the US Congress, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas sent a letter to the Vietnamese government earlier this month calling for his release.

"This is a move in the right direction," Brownback told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "But the Vietnamese government still has a lot of work to do to ensure very basic human rights and religious freedom."

He said the US Congress would continue to press Hanoi on the issue, which will remain "a big bump in the road" between the two countries' expanding relations if Vietnam's human rights record does not improve.

Last year, the US State Department ranked Vietnam as one of the most repressive countries in the world for religious freedom. Only a handful of government-approved religions are allowed to operate in Vietnam, but several outlawed churches continue to exist. Hanoi maintains that no one is jailed for their religious beliefs.

A report published late last year by the Sydney-based Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre points out that Vietnam has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and has complied with its reporting obligations as a party to the ICCPR. But the report says it appears that many of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the ICCPR are not upheld in Vietnam. This, it says, is primarily because either the fundamental rights have not been incorporated into the domestic law of Vietnam, or where the rights have been incorporated into domestic laws, in practice the laws are not enforced.

Amnesty International has identified that the failure to uphold the fundamental guarantees of the ICCPR is most evident in discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or politics, media censorship, discrimination against women and children, and the inadequacies of the judicial and legal system.

Vietnam Releases High-Profile Dissidents (The Guardian/Associated Press 31/1/05)

David Alton reports on the Church in Vietnam (Independent Catholic News 3/2/03)
CURRENT CAMPAIGNS - Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly (Freedom Now)
View on Vietnam (Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre 12/11/04)
Vietnamese Bishops Fear New Threat to Religious Liberty (Zenit 10/11/04)
Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam: Testimony of Rev. Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly (13/2/01)

Human Rights Watch urges Vietnam atrocities investigation (CathNews 8/6/04)
New paper updates awarenesss of Vietnam human rights situation (CathNews 16/11/04)

Vietnam set to free six political prisoners (ABC Radio Australia 31/1/05)
Vietnam: priest among prisoners of conscience to be freed soon (Independent Catholic News 31/1/05)
Amnesty International - Freedom for elderly prisoners of conscience in Viet Nam ( 31/1/05)

32 Feb 2005