By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
Supporters say the minority Christian defendants were participating in a religious convocation that allegedly ended in a "massacre" blamed on Vietnamese security forces.
The official Vietnam News Agency, in a report monitored by BosNewsLife, called the defendants "illiterates" who"“admitted to not knowing the illegal nature of their activities."
Presiding Judge Phan Van Nam has been quoted by news reports as saying police were hunting for three ringleaders.The prison terms, given in March, come nearly a year after international media reported widespread unrest in the region near the border with Laos, the Voice of America (VOA) network said.
The government claimed "thousands of evangelical Hmong" had gathered in Dien Bien province waiting for their God to appear to take them to the promised land in May.
Vietnam's government reportedly launched a crackdown after additionally accusing leaders of advocating for an independent Hmong kingdom.
Some Hmong advocacy groups said over 60 people were killed and hundreds of others injured in the crackdown.
BosNewsLife news agency quoted James Jacob Prasch, executive director of Moriel Ministries (MM), as warning at the time the real figure may be higher than dozens. "I am told by Hmong pastors that so many were shot dead that they were buried in mass graves bulldozed over," he added.
Others were reportedly detained.
He claimed "the massacre" was the horrific aftermath of shortwave broadcasts by Harold Camping of California-based Family Radio.
Camping claimed that Christ would return to Earth to "rapture" his followers to heaven on May 21 as mankind had run out of time.
After the broadcasts, roughly 7,000 Hmong Christians attempted to gather "on a mountain praising God" in late April and early May, but instead found "police and military police" who slaughtered "many of them at gunpoint beheading two pastors" Prasch said.
A spokeswoman from the Foreign Ministry said 'extremists' had been detained but did not say how many or whether anyone had been killed or injured. Foreign media and diplomats were banned from visiting the area for an independent investigation.
The predominantly Christian Hmong are ethnically distinct from the Vietnamese and say they have long chafed under Hanoi's rule.
In Vietnam's Dien Bien province the 170,000 Hmong represent about one-third of its population. The Hmong make up just over 1 per cent of the wider Vietnamese population, but many reportedly earn as little as 100 dollars a year, less than a tenth of the average annual income.
Christians say there is a long history of mistrust between the government and many ethnic hilltribe groups, collectively known as Montagnards, as many of them were allied with the U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
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