EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement but 14 Protestants still in prison
HRWF/ The 88 Project (10.06.2020) – The National Assembly of Vietnam has ratified a free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), which over the next 10 years will cut or eliminate 99 percent of tariffs on trade between the two sides.
Lawmakers of the Vietnamese Parliament approved the Europe-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), which will come into effect in July.
Negotiations between the EU and Vietnam began in 2012 but remained stalled for several years over the latter”s refusal to accept human rights and environmental clauses.
Reasons for the Persecution of Protestants in Vietnam
As of July 2018, the total population of Vietnam was estimated to be 97 million. According to statistics released by Vietnam’s Government Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), 26.4% of the population are religious believers: 14.91% identify as Buddhist, 7.35% as Roman Catholic, 1.09% as Protestant, 1.16% as Cao Dai, and 1.47% as Hoa Hao Buddhist.
Vietnam’s Constitution stipulates that the government must defend and respect the freedom of religion or belief for all citizens. However, religious teachings are considered incompatible with communist ideology, and any form of assembly is perceived as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. Consequently, all religious groups are under strict surveillance and control by the Communist Party.
To that end, Vietnam’s Law on Belief and Religion went into effect on 1 January 2018. This law, which requires religious groups to formally register with the government, has been used by authorities as justification for persecuting religious minorities, including Protestants. There are reports of authorities: harassing church members and leaders; refusing to issue identity documents which effectively leaves members stateless; raiding and shutting down churches; detaining members who attended overseas conferences or spoke to foreign officials; destroying or expropriating property or places of worship; exerting pressure on members to renounce their faith; and arresting and detaining religious leaders.
Members of the Montagnard ethnic group are especially targeted and are often sentenced to lengthy prison terms on the alleged grounds of undermining the national unity policy.
Due to missionary activities before Vietnam became communist, it is estimated that over half a million Montagnards are now Protestant Christians. The Vietnamese authorities perceive this ethno-religious group as a potential threat to the territorial integrity and the security of the country.
Protestants in Prison in Vietnam
In Vietnam, only religious organisations that are state-sanctioned can operate. Pastors and believers of Evangelical and Pentecostal house churches that are not state-sanctioned can be arrested at any time and charged with spurious offenses such as disruption of public order, undermining state security, illegally operating a business or leaking state secrets.
Protestants behind bars: some statistics
As of 1 April 2020, HRWF documented 14 cases of Protestants in its Prisoners’ Database. These individuals were all sentenced to between five to 17 years in prison. They are all Montagnards and five are Evangelical pastors. In 2019 there were 24 cases recorded in HRWF’s database, in 2018 there were 27 and in 2017 there were 32.
There have been reports of religious prisoners experiencing torture during pretrial detention and imprisonment, as well as poor living conditions in prisons and suspicious deaths occurring while in custody.
Articles of the Penal Code
Prisoners are typically charged under this Article of the Vietnamese Criminal Code:
Article 87 which is “undermining the unity policy”.
Additionally, one of the Protestants in HRWF’s FoRB Prisoners’ Database was charged under Article 275, which includes “organizing and/or coercing other persons to flee abroad or stay abroad illegaly”.
Some international advocacy
On 12 March 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee held a review of Vietnam’s fulfilment of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In the Committee’s concluding observations, it highlighted concerns that had been raised related to freedom of religion or belief, especially regarding imprisonment: allegations of torture, poor living conditions, deaths while in detention and unjust pretrial detentions. The Committee also reiterated alarm at the government’s repression of indigenous ethnic communities and lack of freedom of expression for civil society organisations.
In its November 2018 resolution on Vietnam, the European Parliament noted that religious freedom is repressed in the country and non-registered religions, such as Protestant churches and ethnic minority Montagnards, “continue to suffer severe religious persecution”. It called on the government to “remove all restrictions on freedom of religion and to put an end to the harassment of religious communities”. It further urged the government to bring its legislation in conformity with international human rights standards and obligations.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that Vietnam be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) every year since 2002. The U.S. Department of State designated Vietnam as a CPC in 2004, but lifted this designation in 2006 after a bilateral agreement. At the time, USCIRF cautioned that it was too soon to ensure that progress regarding religious freedom would continue. In is 2020 report, USCIRF still found cause for Vietnam to be designated as a CPC.
The current situation of Protestants in Vietnam must also be viewed within the framework of international norms of freedom of religion or belief. These norms include ‘the freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [or her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’ (UDHR, Article 18). States must find ways to balance the need for societal stability with their commitment to ensure democratic freedoms for all its citizens.
Pastor tortured while serving 17-year sentence, now partially paralysed
Siu Bler is a pastor at the Amoi Evangelical Church who was previously arrested in 2001 after his community protested years of harassment by the government. When he was released in 2013, he was placed on probation for two years. On 27 August 2004, he was arrested again for defending his Church’s right to freedom of religion. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison, which is to be followed by three years of probation.
While in detention, he was tortured until half of his body became paralysed.
Siu Bler is a member of the Ba Na ethnic minority group of the Montagnards.
Evangelical pastor sentenced to 12 years in prison under unknown charges
Y Yich is an Evangelical pastor from the Gia Lai Province who was previously arrested for “plotting against the government” and sentenced to four years in prison. After his release in 2011, he was placed on probation for three years. He resumed proselytising within his community and was subsequently arrested on 13 May 2013. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but the exact charges against him are unknown.
While in detention, he has been subjected to torture and his health has been deteriorating as a consequence. The prison authorities have denied him medical treatment despite him suffering from high blood pressure, rheumatism, and stomach inflammation. Additionally, his family has not been allowed to send him medicine.
Y Yich is a member of the Ba Na ethnic minority group of the Montagnards.
Sentenced to 8 years in prison for advocating for religious freedom
On 6 January 2012, A Yum Balk was arrested for speaking out against the government’s suppression of religious freedom. He was sentenced to eight years in prison under Article 87. His expected release date was 6 January 2020, but there has been no confirmation that he is now free.
A Yum Balk is a member of the Ba Na ethnic minority group of the Montagnards.
 For more religious statistics, see https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vietnam/