U.S. Group Condemns Arrest of Rights Lawyer in Vietnam

A U.S. government commission has condemned the arrest of a prominent Vietnamese religious freedom lawyer who has served on the defense of many high profile human rights cases.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal body, describes arrested lawyer Le Cong Dinh as a "peaceful human rights defender" and says he is among a growing number of rights activists who are challenging laws that are inconsistent with the Vietnamese constitution and human rights treaties that the government has signed.

"The arrest of Le Cong Dinh demonstrates a disturbing but familiar pattern," said Michael Cromartie, USCIRF vice chair, who recently led a USCIRF delegation to Vietnam. "Peaceful advocates for religious freedom and related human rights are intimidated, harassed, and jailed. Le Cong Dinh's arrest demonstrates that no human rights, including the freedom of religion, are secure in Vietnam."

Le was arrested by the Vietnamese government last Saturday for allegedly "conducting propaganda" against the state. The government accused Le of having "drafted tens of thousands of documents published on overseas radio, newspaper and websites" containing hostile content against the communist regime, according to Agence France-Presse.

In response, the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute, a global association of lawyers, has sent a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung expressing concern for the "arbitrary" arrest of the rights lawyer.

The letter also conveyed the association's concern that the arrest is "directly linked" to Le's work as a lawyer who "defended pro-democracy activists." Le has defended high profile clients including prominent religious freedom activists Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, whose imprisonments are included in USCIRF's 2009 Report on Religious Freedom.

The religious freedom body has recommended to the U.S. State Department that Vietnam be re-designated as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC), but the U.S ambassador to Vietnam recently restated the department's longstanding belief that Vietnam does not meet the criteria to be named a CPC.

"The Commission has consistently found that systematic and egregious abuses of religious freedom continue in Vietnam," argues USCIRF chair Felice Gaer. "The CPC designation is an important and flexible diplomatic tool, used previously to bring about some tangible results in Vietnam without hindering other bilateral interests."

A USCIRF delegation that visited Vietnam in May confirmed that Vietnamese individuals continue to be imprisoned for peaceful religious activities or advocacy. Moreover, converts and those involved in independent religious activity face systematic intimidation and discrimination. The delegation also observed that lawyers and those seeking to expand religious freedom are harassed.

"We urge the Obama Administration to establish clear policies and use all available diplomatic tools to support the hopes and aspirations of the Vietnamese people for both greater freedom and prosperity," Gaer said.

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