In the past ten days, two Christian activists have been detained by Vietnamese police and repeatedly beaten, as an example of what human rights groups are calling a systematic targeting of Christians for harassment by public officials.
As Vietnam prepares to enact new legislation that would seriously curb religious freedom, police have begun cracking down on Christians, especially those most vocal about their faith. In a period of just ten days, police twice assaulted Christian student activist Chu Manh Son and Catholic journalist Tran Minh Nhat, each of whom had previously served prison terms for denouncing Vietnam’s human rights violations.
On November 8, the two Christian activists were stopped by police in the Central Highlands and taken to the police station. During their 12-hour detention both men were repeatedly beaten while communist party officials tried to force them to write a letter admitting to their wrongdoings, according to Front Line Defenders, a human rights group.
When Nhat went for a medical check-up on November 17 for the injuries he had sustained, police attacked him again, administering a second beating. Undercover security officers reportedly accosted Nhat as he was traveled to the clinic near his home in Lam Dong province of Vietnam.
Nhat is a journalist for Vietnam Redemptorist News, a Catholic news organization.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, described the men’s beatings as “part of a daily cycle of the systematic and pervasive rights abuse occurring across Vietnam.”
“The police’s blatant physical attacks and ongoing intimidation of these two dissidents show the Vietnam government’s complete disregard for human rights or the rule of law,” he said. “All across Vietnam, dissidents are being targeted this way – the only difference is whether the incidents become public or are hushed up.”
Vietnam has a population of some 90 million, of which Christians make up about 8%.
Both Nhat and Son have served lengthy prison sentences for political crimes. In August Nhat was released after serving a four-year sentence and Son was released in 2014 after serving thirty months. Both say they have been victims of police harassment since their release.
In what rights groups describe as trumped up charges, police convicted Nhat with a number of his colleagues for conspiring to overthrow the government, while Son was convicted for anti-state propaganda.
According to Le Quang Hien, a Buddhist leader and member of the Interfaith Council of Vietnam, “To the outside world, Vietnam allows freedom to follow any religion, but it’s not true. The government wants to toughen the law — it’s like tightening the noose.”
Nguyen Khac Huy of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs has stated that Vietnam’s new law governing religions “seeks to strengthen discipline and responsibility in belief and religious activities of religious organizations and competent state agencies.”
Limitations on religious freedom will come “in cases of necessity for the reasons of national defense, national security, public order, social ethics, and community well-being,” he said.
Front Line Defenders said there is little doubt that the two Christian activists beaten recently “were specifically targeted on account of their peaceful work in defense of human rights.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome