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Vietnam Sentences 9 for Organizing Religious Group - 2003-07-02

Nine people in Vietnam were sentenced to between 18 and 30 months in jail Tuesday for trying to organize a religious group.

Media reports say the nine organized a branch of Dega Protestantism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in April 2001 with 70 followers. All of the accused pleaded guilty. Ma Phuon, the leader of the group, was found guilty of "sabotaging national unity" and sentenced to 30 months in jail. Other members of the group were found guilty of "inciting believers to flee Vietnam and speak ill of the government." Dega Protestantism is a type of evangelical Christianity followed by many hill tribe people. Communist leaders in Hanoi consider the religion a tool used by U.S.-based Vietnamese exiles to establish an independent Montagnard state in the highlands.

It was in this central highland region where protests over land and religious rights were quelled by military force in February 2001. More than 1,000 people, often referred to as Montagnards, fled the region for neighboring Cambodia after the crackdown.

Vietnam recognizes six religions, one of which is a state-sanctioned form of Protestantism, but all other religions are outlawed. International human rights groups regularly criticize Vietnam for oppressing minority rights. Sunai Phasuk, from the human rights group Asia Forum, says the government uses religion as an excuse for these crackdowns, which are really about land rights.

"The issue of concern now is the rights of the minority for legitimate land ownership," said Mr. Sunai. "But whenever the ethnic minority try to claim for their legitimate land rights ownership, there often [have] been crackdown[s] and [suppression]. And the most effective means of the government is to use the accusation of religion to crack down on these people."

The minority hill groups fought as U.S. allies in Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam War.