The Vietnamese government says it will prosecute Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly for disseminating anti-Communist propaganda. Ly has already spent several years in prison for political crimes, but was freed in an amnesty in 2005. The charges appear to be part of a recent campaign to rein in dissidents, as Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.

Last month, police raided the home of Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly in the city of Hue, in central Vietnam. They confiscated six computers and more than a hundred mobile phone cards.

Ly and several other activists have formed a new political party, called the Vietnam Progression Party, and intended to merge it with a U.S. Vietnamese émigré party called Dang Vi Dan, or For the People Party.

The government says it will prosecute Ly for "propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam". The official Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan said Ly had violated the terms of his amnesty by changing residences without permission, and condemned him for "colluding with political opportunists and reactionaries at home and abroad."

Police are holding Ly in the parish of Ben Cui, 20 kilometers from Hue, where he has reportedly begun a hunger strike.

Nguyen Nhu The is the bishop of Hue. The says Ly has not eaten for several days, but he has no serious health problems, and a nurse is looking after him.

In 2001, Ly wrote to the U.S. government's Commission on International Religious Freedom to protest Vietnamese restrictions on religious worship. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but released in an amnesty in 2005.

Democracy activist Nguyen Khac Toan says Ly's arrest was just one of a number of recent police actions against dissidents. Toan says the police have begun a harsh campaign of repression against dissidents. He says two other members of the Progression Party in Hue, Nguyen Phong and Nguyen Dinh Thanh, were arrested on February 16 and questioned for several days.

Toan himself was repeatedly interrogated by police in Hanoi in January. In early February, human rights lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, and democracy activist Bach Ngoc Dung, were arrested and questioned for days.

Lawyer Dai was forced to appear before a "people's tribunal" in his neighborhood.

Dai says such tribunals have no real legal power, and the hearing was only meant to embarrass him.

While the arrests may seem to indicate a trend toward tightened political control, experts on Vietnam say the government is constantly loosening and tightening the reins.

Carl Thayer is a Vietnam expert at Australia's National Defense University. He says in the last year, as Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization and hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, there has been a flowering of open dissent.

"Vietnam had seen a remarkable opening, prior to APEC, et cetera, and they've seen an emergence of a rather large-scale networked dissident group, pro-democracy, which is unique in Vietnam," Thayer said. "Father Ly is part of that, and the cardinal sin is to make contact with overseas Vietnamese, and organizations that the regime considers hostile."

Thayer thinks Ly's arrest was probably triggered by the Progression Party's attempt to join with the Dang Vi Dan in the U.S. The party's leaders hope to win enough support among people in Vietnam and overseas Vietnamese to be able to pressure the government to accept a dialogue with opposition groups.

Experts find such a scenario unlikely. Elections to Vietnam's National Assembly are coming in May, but while some non-Communist Party members will be elected, Thayer says they will not be democracy activists.

"It's a one-party system, and the Party declared that at the Plenum," added Thayer. "I think trying to disrupt those elections would be seen as anti-Vietnamese or anti-Vietnam, rather than pro-democracy."

According to democracy activist Toan, if Father Ly is convicted of spreading propaganda against Vietnam, he could face up to 20 years in prison.