Vietnamese activists cite curbs on dissent prior to Bush visit
HANOI — Vietnamese democracy and human rights activists on Nov. 14 accused the government of stepping up harassment in an effort to silence them ahead of President Bush’s visit and a highprofile economic summit last week.
The activists, some of whom are under house arrest, praised a vote intheU.S.HouseofRepresentatives on Nov. 13 that denied permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status to Vietnam and criticized Vietnam’s removal from the State Department’s blacklist of countries that limit religious freedom.
“ThePNTRstatusmustcomewith a condition that the government respect human rights for our own people,”saidPhamHongSon,anactivist who was detained for two years beginning in 2002 and has been under house arrest for another two.
He said he was detained because of an article on democracy that he translated into Vietnamese from the WebsiteoftheU.S.EmbassyinHanoi andpostedseparatelyontheInternet. Hisclaimcouldnotbeindependently verifiedbecausethegovernmentdoes not comment on dissident cases.
The government accused democracyactivistsofplottingtodestabilize thecountryandtoshameitbeforethe 21 heads of state expected at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit over the Nov. 18-19 weekend. The Foreign Ministry called the House vote “very regretful, not suitable, and not serving themutualinterestandwishesofthe peoples of the two countries.”
Human rights advocates in the House, such as Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, led opposition to the bill, which fell short of a needed two-thirds majority by a singlevote.Thebillisnotexpectedto comebackforanothervotebeforethe end of the month.
The deal was part of a flurry of activity by the two sides, seemingly designed to clear away irritants on the eve of Mr. Bush’s departure for Vietnam.
Onthesamedayasthevote,aVietnamese-Americanwasreleasedfrom prison and allowed to return to the United States, and Vietnam was removedfromalistofcountriesthatseverely restrict religious freedoms.
John V. Hanford III, the State Department’s at-large ambassador for international religious freedom, denied that politics or business played any role in the latter decision, saying Vietnam had taken a number of specific steps to get off the list.
HesaidHanoihadclarifiedlawson religious policy; greatly curbed the practice of “forced renunciations” of religious belief; released dozens of Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant and HoaHaoreligiousprisoners;allowed previously outlawed groups and denominations to register and practice their faith, including 39 new congregations in Ho Chi Minh City alone in thepastmonth;andpermittedgreater freedom for Protestant and Catholic congregations, including a sharp increase in the number of new Vietnamese priests and ministers.
However, Vietnamese activists complainedofcontinuingreligiousrepression in an open letter published in Washington on Nov. 14.
“The Vietnamese people do not have freedom of religion and worship,” said the writers, a group of engineers, lawyers, professors and religious leaders grouped under the name “A Call For Democracy.”
Mr. Son said the decision to take Vietnam off the list was “not good newsforthosewhocareabouthuman rights.”
The activist cited at least three attempts by security police this month to warn him against speaking with foreignerswhoarearrivinginHanoi for the APEC summit.
David Sands and Sharon Behn in Washington contributed to this article.