By BosNewsLife Asia Service
HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife)– Two Vietnamese Catholics, whose arrest sparked mass protests in Vietnam’s Nghe An Province last month, have been sentenced to six and seven months imprisonment, trial observers told BosNewsLife Thursday, October 31.
Family members were not allowed to attend the three-hour closed-door trial and sentencing of Nguyen Van Hai and Ngo Van Khoi, who were detained June 27 on charges of “disturbing public order”.
“The fact that the two men were tried in a closed-door trial is of particular concern,” said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Their detention came after men believed to be plainclothes police officers on May 22 stopped and searched Catholics visiting a shrine and attending Mass at a church in Nghi Phuong Commune, Christians said.
“As the police officers did not show any identification, there was confusion among the crowd as to their identity, and some people reportedly believed them to be robbers,” added CSW, which has investigated the case.
It was unclear why Nguyen Van Hai and Ngo Van Khoi were singled out for arrest. “Some sources say they were arguing with the plainclothes officers; others say they were simply being used as scapegoats for the unrest,” CSW said in a statement.
Members of the Catholic community and Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, the Bishop of Vinh city petitioned for their release.
In response, the local district chief reportedly issued a paper promising that the two men would be freed on September 4. When this promise was not upheld, several hundred petitioners surrounded the District Office in Nghe An Province last month.
The military arrived to dispel the crowd, armed with guns, batons, tear gas, and guard dogs, according to witnesses.
U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia (RFA) network said an “unknown number of people” were rushed to hospital with injuries after being beaten by police who also fired in the air in front of the My Yen church in Nghe An province. Christians said at least 40 people were injured.
Following what critics called the “worst crackdown in years” Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop appealed for “international support and solidarity”.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas agreed that, “These sentences come as a huge disappointment to the Catholic community in Nghe An…”
He told BosNewsLife that Vietnamese Catholics’ right to freedom of religion or belief “has been severely restricted and the community has been subject to constant intimidation and harassment,” in the Communist-run Asian nation.
“CSW calls on the Vietnamese government to release the two men, to halt all attacks on religious minorities in Vietnam and lift restrictions on their religious freedom.”
Vietnamese authorities have denied wrongdoing in the past or blamed Western propaganda for the reported rights violations.