U.S. Commission Confirms Vietnam's Release of Religious Freedom Advocates

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) confirmed on Wednesday that Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly has returned to his family home in the central province of Thue Thien-Hue. Ly was released with several other prominent democracy, free speech, and religious freedom advocates as part of a general amnesty coinciding with Vietnam's Tet New Year holiday.

“In light of the asserted basis for his arrest, Fr. Ly’s freedom is particularly important to the Commission. For the past three years we have worked hard to focus international and domestic pressure for his release,” said USCIRF Chair Preeta D. Bansal. “We also welcome the release of Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Nguyen Dinh Huy, and Thich Thien Minh, but recognize that many prisoners remain in Vietnam for doing nothing more than peacefully advocating for the freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.”

Ly, a well-known advocate of religious freedom and democracy, was charged with undermining national unity and sentenced in 2001 to 15 years in jail plus five years of house arrest after he submitted written testimony to a USCIRF hearing criticizing the Vietnamese government’s interference with religious belief and practice. Prior to the incident, Ly was already well known for openly criticizing the Vietnamese government for its poor human rights record.

Last year, the U.S. State Department, as urged by the USCIRF, named Vietnam a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for egregious, ongoing, and systematic abuses of the freedom of religion and belief. The CPC designation carries with it the possibility of sanctions if the government of Vietnam fails to address concerns about religious freedom abuses.

According to Bansal, “Vietnam ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) but many of the fundamental rights of the ICCPR have either not been incorporated into the domestic law or are qualified by vague prohibition against undermining national unity or security.”

“We hope the release of Fr. Ly, Dr. Que, and the others will signal a change in Vietnam’s human rights record, but we temper that hope with the sober reality that prisoner releases do not mean structural change,” the Commission Chair added. “Until there is such change, the government of Vietnam has not sufficiently addressed the concerns that lead to the CPC designation in the first place.”

Created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments. It also gives independent policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and the Congress.