Human rights in Vietnam was the subject of a congressional hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill. U.S.-based Vietnamese democracy groups and human rights organizations urged Congress and the Bush administration to take stronger steps to pressure Hanoi to release political prisoners and end suppression of religious freedoms. A report from VOA congressional correspondent Dan Robinson.

The hearing in the House foreign affairs human rights subcommittee was the latest effort by lawmakers to focus attention on the human rights situation in Vietnam.

William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat and the panel chairman, noted that despite having won Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the United States, which is now Vietnam's largest export market, and Vietnam's admission to the World Trade Organization, repression there continues.

Two Democrats representing substantial numbers of Vietnamese-Americans, and a Republican who has become the sharpest critic of Hanoi's human rights policies, appeared as witnesses.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California is sponsoring proposed legislation to withdraw Vietnam's favorable trade status with the U.S. unless Hanoi releases all political and religious prisoners and takes significant steps to reform its human rights policies:

"We have seen the consequences of these disastrous actions," said Zoe Lofgren. "We lost our leverage on human rights reform in Vietnam."

Chris Smith, a Republican and author of the Vietnam Human Rights Act approved by the House earlier this year by a vote of 414 to 3, says hopes for progress in Vietnam were dashed by the Hanoi government's crackdown.

"Much of that hope and expectation however came crashing down earlier this year as Hanoi instituted a new sweeping barbaric wave of arrests, beating, bogus trials and incarcerations," said Chris Smith.

Representing the State Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Marciel said human rights remains a high priority for the United States in contacts with Vietnam, as Washington continues to raise specific cases of political or religious prisoners with the Hanoi government.

While describing the Vietnamese government crackdown on dissidents this year as appalling, Marciel defends the State Department's decision to remove Vietnam last year from a list of countries not making progress on religious freedom:

"There was no way of defending that, it is unacceptable," said Scott Marciel. "It was not a crackdown on religious freedom. Still horrible, still a human rights problem absolutely. But on religious freedom itself we are not seeing steps backward we are seeing further steps forward, that is the argument."

Among other witnesses were democracy activists in the United States and representatives of two human rights organizations.

Sophie Richardson, Deputy Director of the Asia Program of Human Rights Watch says that despite the government's repeal of one former law, another was put in its place supporting detention without trial:

"While administrative detention decree 31CP was indeed repealed as we heard earlier in 2007, a more repressive law, Ordinance 44, authorizes placing people suspected of threatening national security under house arrest or in detention without trial in social protection centers, rehabilitation camps or mental hospitals," said Sophie Richardson.

Other witnesses included Cong Thanh Do, who was detained for 38 days by Vietnamese authorities who cited his pro-democracy articles on the Internet written from his home in California.

Duy (Dan) Hoang, of the Viet Tan Party, launched by overseas Vietnamese to promote peaceful democratic political reform, says Vietnamese government controls over the media pose a major obstacle to reforms:

"The Vietnamese government exercises a monopoly over the media to control information, to restrict the free exchange of ideas, and to cover up its own corruption and misdeeds," said Hoang. "And to censor the Internet the government employs firewalls, spies in Internet cafes, and threatens bloggers. So it is really critical that Congress support independent sources of information such as Radio Free Asia."

In Tuesday's hearing, Congressman Chris Smith said he hopes his Vietnam Human Rights Act, which has been blocked in the U.S. Senate, can move forward to eventual approval by Congress.