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Thailand sets extradition hearing for Montagnard activist wanted by Hanoi 

Y Quynh Bdap, co-founder of Montagnards Stand for Jutice, speaks on his video, June 7 2024.
Y Quynh Bdap, co-founder of Montagnards Stand for Jutice, speaks on his video, June 7 2024.

A Thai court has set a mid-July extradition hearing date for Vietnamese dissident Y Quynh Bdap, who was arrested in Thailand earlier this month at Vietnam’s request, Thai officials have told VOA.

Rights advocates are meanwhile urging Thailand not to force Bdap back home, fearing for his safety, and say his arrest continues the "swap mart" they claim the region’s governments are running by returning each other’s wanted dissidents.

Bdap had been living in Thailand since 2018 to evade Vietnamese authorities for fear of arrest over this human rights work. Thai police arrested him in Bangkok on June 11 for alleged immigration offenses acting on a call from Vietnam for his return.

A Thai court issued the arrest warrant "upon the request for extradition made by the Vietnamese authority, from the ruling of the Vietnamese court that Mr. Bdap was guilty on the charge of terrorism," Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Nikorndej Balankura told VOA.

Maj. Gen. Khemmarin Hassiri, an adviser to Thailand’s deputy police chief, said the criminal courts have scheduled an extradition hearing for Bdap on July 15.

Vietnam wants Bdap for his alleged role fomenting a riot last year that left nine people, including four local police officers, dead, according to state media. A Vietnamese court convicted him on related terrorism charges in absentia in January and sentenced him to 10 years in jail.

The Vietnamese government has also labeled his group, Montagnards Stand for Justice, which advocates for the rights of the mostly Christian ethnic minorities of the country’s central highlands, a terrorist organization.

Bdap denied the allegations against him and the group in a brief video recorded in Thailand days before his arrest and later posted online by United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor. In the clip, he says he fears his imminent arrest and urges the U.N., rights groups and foreign governments to protect him.

Clarion calls

Since his arrest, rights groups have issued statements urging Thailand not to send Bdap back to Vietnam.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the arrest flies in the face of Thailand’s legal obligations to protect refugees.

"The situation has now gone from bad to worse as he is facing imminent extradition to face prosecution in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has long persecuted Christian Montagnards belonging to independent house churches, supporters of nonviolent demands for independence or autonomy, and people objecting to the transfer of land and forests traditionally used by highlanders to Vietnamese businesses and settlers," Sunai told VOA.

"Human Rights Watch has no information on Y Quynh Bdap’s possible involvement in the riots but is gravely concerned about his safety and his receiving a fair trial in Vietnam," he added.

Montagnard hill tribesmen walk towards the main road after emerging from dense forest 70 km (43 miles) northeast of Ban Lung, located in Cambodia's northeastern province of Ratanakiri, July 22, 2004.
Montagnard hill tribesmen walk towards the main road after emerging from dense forest 70 km (43 miles) northeast of Ban Lung, located in Cambodia's northeastern province of Ratanakiri, July 22, 2004.

Y Phic Hdok, who cofounded Montagnards Stand for Justice with Bdap and is now in the United States after fleeing Vietnam eight years ago, said his friend would be in grave danger if handed over to Vietnam.

"I urge the Thai government to respect international human rights standards and reject Vietnam’s unlawful extradition request," he told VOA. "It will be a risk for his life if he will be deported."

Christopher MacLeod, a Canadian lawyer working to save Bdap from being extradited, echoed the concern.

"I worry for his life and safety," he told VOA, including his "mistreatment and abuse in prison, and [about] the message it would send, the chilling effect it would have on anyone else who wants to speak to religious freedom and tolerance."

MacLeod said Bdap’s arrest came a day after he had a meeting at the Canadian Embassy in Bangkok about his application to resettle in Canada as a political refugee. The embassy did not reply to VOA’s request to confirm the meeting or to comment on the case.

Past as prologue

Thailand’s handling of past refugee cases also has advocates concerned.

While Thailand has at times allowed foreign dissidents wanted by their home countries to resettle elsewhere, even after arresting them, it also has a track record of forcing them back to repressive regimes, including China and Cambodia. Activists wanted by Hanoi have also gone missing while hiding in Thailand in recent years only to show up days or weeks later in custody back in Vietnam, raising concerns about possible state-sponsored kidnapping.

Thai dissidents taking refuge from their own government in neighboring countries have also gone missing or turned up dead under mysterious circumstances in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

"Especially in the region, there has been — I don’t know if it’s formal, but certainly the informal — trading and return of political dissidents from one country to the other," MacLeod said.

"I worry that that is playing itself out in this instance," he added, referring to Bdap.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch recounts 25 confirmed or suspected cases of such transnational repression of activists and dissidents across the region between 2014 and 2023, a nine-year stretch of military-run or -aligned governments in Thailand.

Sunai said the civilian administration that took office following national elections last year risks following in their footsteps.

"The current administration of PM [Prime Minister] Srettha Thavisin carries on the legacy of military rule and maintains the pattern of transnational repression, in which Thai authorities helped neighboring governments take unlawful actions against refugees and dissidents seeking shelter in Thailand," he said.

Treaty talks

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk raised the issue during his latest global update to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last week.

He spoke of an "emerging pattern" of transnational repression in Southeast Asia and of signs that the trend was going global.

Thailand and Vietnam are also in the midst of negotiations on a formal extradition treaty. Khemmarin said those talks would likely continue on a future visit to Vietnam by senior Thai officials, possibly next month.

MacLeod said a treaty could make the problem of transnational repression worse by making it easier and faster for the two countries to exchange dissidents, leaving other governments, rights groups or the U.N. less time and chance to intervene.

Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, which is leading the treaty talks, did not reply to VOA’s questions about a possible deal.

The Vietnamese Embassy did not reply to VOA either.

As for Bdap’s case, Thai government spokesperson Chai Watcharong told VOA that Thailand would "take into consideration all relevant factors and concerns including the safety of the alleged offender. The court shall decide whether the alleged offences requested for extradition are considered extraditable."

"It is better at this stage not to prejudge the court’s decision," he added.