It was February 18, 2007, the Vietnamese New Year, when 60 policemen raided the parish home of Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly in central Vietnam. This type of harassment was not unfamiliar to the Catholic priest, a man who has spent four decades actively campaigning for fundamental freedom and democracy. Between 1977 and 2007, Father Ly had already spent nearly 15 years in prison, some of it in a forced labor camp. He had been free for less than two years when during the holiday in 2007, they took him back. Apart from the period between 2010 to 2011, when he was held basically under house arrest, prison had been his home.
About one month after his arrest in 2007, authorities charged Father Ly with violating Article 88: spreading propaganda against the state. The charges were related to Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy organization Father Ly created in April 2006.
Father Ly’s advocacy was directed at introducing a multi-party system into a country which is essentially a one-party state. The U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report cites Vietnam’s consistent infringement upon the right of its citizens to change their government through free and fair elections as one of the most significant human rights issues in the country. In its most recent annual report on worldwide democratic change, the human rights group Freedom House rates Vietnam as “Not Free”, giving the country the worst possible score for political rights. The Community Party of Vietnam is the only legally recognized political party and it exercises almost total control over the country; in the 2011 National Assembly elections it captured 496 out of 500 seats. Any public debate about or criticism of one-party rule is met with harshly, as demonstrated this week by the sentencing of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh to five years in prison for publishing articles critical of the government.
Two weeks after his arrest, Father Ly was put on trial where he was denied access to a lawyer of his choosing. During the trial, Father Ly shouted “down with the Communist Party of Vietnam!” The outburst resulted in a police officer covering Father Ly’s mouth and removing him from the courtroom. On March 30, 2007, after a four hour trial and twenty minutes of deliberation, Father Ly was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison followed by five years of house arrest.
Throughout his detention, Father Ly has suffered from life-threatening medical problems, including three strokes and a brain tumor. Harsh prison conditions have exacerbated his health problems, including extended periods of solitary confinement in extremely small cells. The Vietnamese government released him on medical parole on March 15, 2010. However, in spite of Father Ly’s ailments, authorities returned him to prison on July 25, 2011. Authorities continue to imprison Father Ly even though he should have been released in 2015, when his eight year sentence ended.
The international community has consistently criticized Father Ly’s incarceration. In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution calling on Vietnam to end the priest’s imprisonment. Two years later, 37 U.S. Senators wrote a letter to President Triet asking him to facilitate Father Ly’s release. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Father Ly’s detention to be in violation of international law and called for his release in 2010.
President Obama’s visit to Vietnam this May will be an opportunity to discuss a range of issues with his Vietnamese counter-part, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and China’s increasingly aggressive stance in the South China Sea. However, the issue of human rights, particularly the case of Father Ly, should be at the forefront. It has been nine years since Father Ly was convicted on spurious charges and a year since he was scheduled to be released. He will turn 70 years old in May, very possibly separated from his friends and family.
It is outrageous that the Government of Vietnam continues to imprison Father Ly. We strongly urge President Obama to call for Father Ly’s immediate and unconditional release as well as the release of all prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.