Human Rights Watch Calls for Release of Dying Priest in Vietnam Prison

This Friday marks “National Vietnam Day,” when the country celebrates Ho Chi Minh’s reading of the Declaration of Independence at Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, the country’s capital, in 1945. The day will be full of festivals and parties, but Human Rights Watch would like to see the government celebrate its revolution by releasing a priest from prison.

According to HRW, Father Nguyen Van Ly, 65, a veteran political activist and Roman Catholic priest, “experienced three strokes while held in solitary confinement in prison in 2009, has a 3-centimeter brain tumor that may have contributed to paralysis of his right leg and arm while in prison, and suffers from carotid atherosclerosis, a leading cause of stroke, and high blood pressure.”

The human rights group is now calling on the government to release Ly to ensure he can receive the proper medical treatment. The dissident priest had been serving an eight year sentence for peacefully campaigning for religious freedom and human rights.

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“A great way for Vietnam to celebrate its National Day would be by freeing all those imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “The unconditional release of dissidents needing urgent medical treatment should be at the top of the list.”

Ly was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for pro-democracy activities, including issuing a manifesto calling for peaceful struggle to establish human rights and democracy in Vietnam. A video on Youtube shows Ly speaking out at court, shouting anti-communist slogans, and then promptly getting his mouth smothered shut by a guard standing behind him – a sort of ugly but accurate symbol for the intense lack of free speech in the communist country.

Ly was granted temporary medical parole 18 months ago. However, he was re-sentenced in July for “compiling, storing and distributing documents…opposing the Party and the State” and breaking the law by “inciting people to…stage demonstrations,” according to state-run Vietnam News Agency.

Many others, including American politicians, have also condemned the Vietnamese government for its treatment of the Vietnamese priest.

“The Vietnamese government has once again shown that its inhumanity knows no bounds,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), a senior member of the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific and a member of the congressional caucus on Vietnam.

“It is unconscionable that the Vietnamese government would send Father Ly back to jail. If Vietnam wants to improve relations with the U.S., it cannot continue to mistreat its own people. The government can start by releasing Father Ly,” Royce added.

In 2007, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren asked Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice to put Vietnam on the list of "Countries of Particular Concern," citing Ly’s treatment as just one example of why Vietnam should be pressured to improve its human rights record.

Since 1977, Ly has spent a total of 15 years in prison for peacefully campaigning against oppression and for religious freedom, freedom of speech, and human rights. He has been an important and influential leader of Vietnam’s pro-democracy movement and was awarded the prestigious Hellman/Hammett writers award, administered by HRW and “given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution or human rights abuses.”

The Vietnamese government traditionally releases prisoners on "National Vietnam Day," according to HRW. This year the government announced it will release 10,244 prisoners. And as an example of how severely the government punishes freedom of expression, Vietnamese state media said that only five of those prisoners are incarcerated for “national security crimes,” like the “crimes” Ly has been imprisoned for.

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