A U.S. government agency is urging that Vietnam be returned to a list of counties that are subject to economic sanctions because of their severe suppression of religious rights.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued the call Tuesday in response to the seven-year prison sentence handed this week to Vietnamese legal scholar and human rights defender Cu Huy Ha Vu.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the independent, bipartisan commission, said it is "past time" for the administration of President Barack Obama to return Vietnam to its list of Countries of Particular Concern, which includes the likes of Burma, China and North Korea. Countries on the list can face additional action from the United States, including economic sanctions.
Vu, who has defended various dissidents including Roman Catholics, was convicted on Monday of conducting propaganda against the state and conducting acts considered dangerous to society. The case attracted widespread interest in Vietnam because of Vu's contacts among the ruling Communist Party elite.
Vu's father, a prominent poet, was a member of the first provisional Cabinet established by independence leader Ho Chi Minh in 1946.
Vu angered party leaders by filing lawsuits in 2009 and 2010 against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, charging that his policies violated environmental laws and the constitution. The courts rejected the cases and Vu was arrested last year during a crackdown on dissidents ahead of a ruling party congress in January.
Vietnam was removed from the list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2006 amid improving relations with the United States. But Leo said said that placing it back on the list "will advance the United States' strategic interests" while "producing tangible religious freedom improvements on the ground."
The USCIRF is charged with monitoring religious freedom in countries around the world and making recommendations to the U.S. president, the Secretary of State and Congress.