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Vietnam Gives Long Prison Terms to Ethnic Minority Protesters - 2001-09-27

A court in central Vietnam has convicted seven ethnic minority men of stirring up violent protests against the ruling Communist Party in February. The seven men were sentenced to up to 11 years in prison for their part in the demonstrations in Vietnam's central highlands.

Last February, the worst outbreak of civil unrest in years swept through Vietnam's central highlands coffee-growing region, drawing thousands of demonstrators. It was five days before the government regained control over the area, which is still closed to outsiders.

Twenty people were arrested after the riots, and late Wednesday afternoon, a court in Dak Lak province sentenced the first group of what it called "provocateurs." The seven men were handed sentences of between six years and 11 years in prison for undermining public security.

Vietnam's communist government has accused the protest leaders of taking orders from an exile group in the United States called the Montagnard Foundation, which it says is bent on destabilizing Vietnam.

The relatively harsh sentences showed the government's hard line against dissent. By contrast, six officials convicted earlier this month of corruption received less than 10 months in prison each.

Political analysts believe the protests may have initially been sparked by land issues. In past years, migration of the majority Vietnamese people into the highlands has pushed minority groups off their collectively owned land.

Earlier this month, the Communist Party's general secretary, Nong Duc Manh, toured the troubled central highlands area and promised reform.

But along with promises of help for the minorities has come a renewed effort to silence wider political dissent.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch decries what it called an "intense" crackdown which has resulted in dozens of detentions and police raids.