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Vietnamese Dissidents Questioned Over Planned Newsletter


A group of Vietnamese dissidents planning a pro-democracy newsletter has been questioned by police in Hanoi, and their homes and computers have been searched. Matt Steinglass reports from the Vietnamese capital.

The dissidents include well-known democracy activists Nguyen Khac Toan and Hoang Tien, as well as lawyer Nguyen Van Dai. They say their newsletter, entitled "Freedom and Democracy," was slated to come out last Tuesday.

Instead, they say they have been repeatedly interrogated by police, their homes have been searched, and books and computers have been seized.

Bach Ngoc Duong, a construction engineer, was the newsletter's graphic designer. He says police took him to an Internet cafe and asked him to show them his e-mails, but he refused.

Duong says the police then searched his house and his computer, and confiscated a number of books. He says they confiscated the computers of others in the group, too, and his house is now surrounded by plainclothes policemen.

Vietnam's government declined repeated requests to comment on the interrogations. A neighbor of Nguyen Khac Toan, the democracy activist, confirmed that police had searched Toan's house and repeatedly questioned him this week.

Vietnam's dissidents, including the group that planned the newsletter, issued an open letter last April called "The 2006 Declaration on Democracy and Freedom for Vietnam."

The declaration, which has attracted more than 400 co-signers, denounces the Communist Party and calls for a multiparty democracy. Such a declaration is risky in Vietnam, where the constitution guarantees the party a leading role.

Some previous dissidents have been convicted of espionage. Others have been found guilty of "abusing democratic freedoms" to harm the state or endanger public security.

Toan, the newsletter's organizer, has already spent three years in jail. A former army officer and math teacher, he helped farmers in 2001 file legal petitions against land seizures. He also communicated information about alleged abuses to Vietnamese organizations abroad.

The government called that espionage, and sentenced him to 12 years in prison in December 2002. He was released in an amnesty last January.

None of the newsletter group has been arrested. According to another lawyer, Tran Lam, the government will decide whether or not to prosecute based on how dangerous it considers the offenders to be.

Lam says these matters are political, and the same action may be considered serious one day, and minor the next.

Bach Ngoc Duong, the graphic designer, says he has already suffered for his political opinions.

Duong says he was arrested him last September for sending pro-democracy e-mails to his friends, and has since lost his job at a state-owned firm. Now, he says, his landlady wants him to move out.