A court in Vietnam’s North Central Coast region on Wednesday ordered two Catholic Christians who campaigned for religious freedom jailed for “disturbing public order,” triggering outrage among family members, priests and parishioners.
The court in the Nghe An provincial capital Vinh sentenced Ngo Van Khoi, 53, to seven months in prison and Nguyen Van Hai, 43, to a six-month term after a three-hour trial, of which their immediate family members were not notified.
Their arrest in June had led to mass protests by parishioners of the Vinh diocese in Nghi Phuong village prompting a bloody crackdown by the authorities.
Khoi’s children told RFA’s Vietnamese Service said they were upset with the verdict, stressing that their father and Hai were innocent and that they had appealed to all levels of the authorities to seek their freedom.
They said they heard on Tuesday about the trial from villagers who were not Catholics, expressing sadness that they had been kept away from the hearing.
An official of the village had told some residents, but not Catholics, about the court hearing, the children said.
The families of the duo only met them twice since they had been detained on May 22, when men believed to be plainclothes police officers stopped and searched Catholics visiting a shrine in Nghi Phuong commune.
The exact nature of the charges they faced is not immediately clear.
Local authorities had earlier promised to release Khoi and Hai in September following complaints from priests and parishioners.
When they were not freed, hundreds of parishioners protested on Sept. 4 to demand their release, resulting in one of the bloodiest religious crackdowns in Vietnam in recent years as police fired multiple gunshots, lobbed grenades and violently dispersed the crowd. Several people were seriously injured.
A priest from the Vinh diocese said the two men were innocent.
“They should be freed,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Following the September crackdown, the diocese of Vinh and its Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop had appealed to the international community, saying the situation in his parish was “dangerous and worrying.”
He had been at the center of a smear campaign by local government leaders and the state controlled media for demanding the release of two parishioners, according to Christian media reports which singled out Thai Van Hang, the deputy chief of Nghe An province, for being behind the move.
Vietnam, under one-party communist rule, is expanding control over all religious activities and severely restricts independent religious practice and represses individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) said in a report this year.
Catholic churches in the country face strict government regulations.
In January, a Vietnamese court convicted 14 activists, including Catholics, of plotting to overthrow the government in a decision condemned by rights groups.
Many of the convicted were affiliated with Catholic Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which have been part of a growing voice among Vietnamese movements for democracy and human rights in recent years.
The USCIRF has proposed that Vietnam be returned to a U.S. State Department list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedoms.