Ho Chi Minh City – Late on a Tuesday evening, sitting four floors up in a Ho Chi Minh City cafe overlooking the city’s landmark opera house, a worried man who used the pseudonym Long had the look of someone who thought he was being watched.
“I drove around the city for 45 minutes before heading here,” he said, hunched over and leaning forward on his seat in a restaurant that was almost empty. Looking around uneasily, he said, “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being followed.”
At the heart of Long’s problems, and that of his fellow members of a Mennonite Church offshoot, is what they deem to be unfair land seizures that are then turned over to major companies for development by the Vietnamese government. The state maintains sole ownership of land and confiscation in the name of economic development is a continuing irritation. Landowners frequently complain about unfair compensation and criticize the laws on land use, which they say are often abused by corrupt local officials.
Although the Mennonite Church has official recognition from the government, Long belongs to a splinter group with about 10,000 members called the “Cattle Shed Church” in Ho Chi Minh City.
The Cattle Shed Church’s pastor is an activist named Duong Kim Khai, who was arrested on Aug. 10 last year on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. Khai, who has been held incommunicado since his arrest, was previously jailed for two years between 2004 and 2006 after police seized his property, which they said was being used as an unsanctioned place of worship. Upon his release, he relocated the congregation to a friend’s cattle shed, hence the name of his church.
Khai is expected to be tried starting Monday in the People’s Court of Ben Tre along with six other activists who have been linked by officials to the overseas pro-democracy group Viet Tan, a proscribed organization in Vietnam’s one-party state. Opposition parties are effectively banned in Vietnam, and membership in such organizations can be deemed subversion under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Penal Code.
The group includes two other Mennonites and four land rights activists, including one from the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect. Khai and his group were working with fellow Vietnamese, helping them file letters of complaint over the loss of their land, which had been seized by local governments and sold to developers.
Nineteen years ago, Long himself lost 320 square meters of land in the city, with the government paying compensation amounting to a little over one-eighth of the property’s value, he says. “I read more about the law to try help my own case. It was no good. But I try to help others now.”
Khai, Long says, “helped farmers who lost their land. It means that the government considers the pastor the leader of the farmers who protest losing their land.” Echoing his own two-decade old case, he said “the government took the land from the farmers and paid the lowest compensation”
The pastor, along with two other Cattle Shed members, Tran Thi Thuy and Nguyen Thanh Tam, have been held without access to lawyers or their families. “The attorney cannot contact the detainees til now,” Long said. According to Viet Tan, the group’s legal team have not been given access to necessary documents, in contravention of Vietnamese law.
The seven are expected to face what is feared will be a show trial along the lines of the recent case of Cu Huy Ha Vu, who on April 4 was sentenced to seven years in prison under Vietnam’s opaque national security laws, also for defending victims of land confiscation. It was possibly Vietnam’s highest-profile political trial in recent years.
Cu Huy Ha Vu’s father was a confidante of Vietnam’s Communist revolutionary icon Ho Chi Minh. The son previously represented the Vietnamese Government in international cases. However he fell from favor with the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) elite after twice attempting to sue Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, in one case over a controversial bauxite mine in the Central Highlands.
His most recent arrest, leading to the seven year sentence, came after his attempts to represent Catholics from Con Dau near the coastal city of Danang, who were arrested after protesting police blockage of a funeral in May. The authorities said that the 135-year-old cemetery was on state land, apparently designated by the government as the future site of an eco-tourist resort.
Since the sentencing, more than 2,000 people have signed a petition for Cu Hu Va Huy’s release, including senior communist party members, retired army officers and government officials. Other activists, such as Hanoi-based lawyer Le Quoc Quan, were detained by police after showing up at Cu Hu Va Huy’s trial.
The government is taking a very strict line on Monday’s trial of the Mennonites and the other activists. Now, according to Long, anyone thinking of showing up at Ben Tre is being told to think again.
“The government say don’t go to the trial, like at Cu Huy Ha Vu,” Long said.
– Roughneen was in Ho Chi Minh City in mid-May