Vietnam jails 15 ethnic minority men for "sabotaging national unity"

Fifteen ethnic minority men in Vietnam's troubled Central Highlands have been jailed for "sabotaging national unity and causing social disorder" during anti-government protests two years ago, officials said.

The People's Court of Dak Lak province handed 10-year prison sentences followed by five years of de-facto house arrest to "ring leaders" Y Tim Bya and Y Het Nie Kdam during a one-day trial on Monday, a court official said Tuesday.

Five others received jail terms of seven years followed by four years confined to their homes, while the remaining eight were sentenced to five years behind bars and three years under house arrest.

The trial comes after the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Hanoi last month of escalating its campaign of repression against the region's indigenous minorities.

The men, all members of the Ede and Jarai minority groups, were found guilty of "setting up a new leadership framework for a Dega government in Dak Lak," the ruling Communist Party's Nhan Dan newspaper said.

Over 1,000 hill tribe people or Montagnards fled the impoverished highlands region to Cambodia after security forces quashed demonstrations by as many as 20,000 people in February 2001.

The protests were sparked by grievances over the long-term confiscation of their land for use by ethnic Vietnamese settlers and a crackdown on their Protestant faith.

The government, however, blamed the unrest on US-based exiles who fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam War and who are seeking an independent "Dega" state in the Central Highlands.

Many of the politicized Montagnards in the region and refugees from there in the United States refer to themselves as Dega, a term connoting the type of evangelical Christianity they follow and the homeland they seek.

Diplomats say that only a minority of the people who took to the streets in 2001 were agitating for an independent state. The majority, they say, simply wanted the return of their ancestral land and religious freedom.

"Systematically the authorities are going from village to village targeting those people who took part in the protests using footage shot by the security forces," said one former diplomat with considerable experience in the region.

"Many of those that aren't imprisoned are interrogated and forced to sign 'brotherhood' statements denouncing their religious and political activities and promising to comply with the law," he said.

The party mouthpiece said the 15 convicted Montagnards had, from the time of the 2001 unrest until mid 2002, "developed their forces in 17 out of 19 districts and cities in the province."

It said they had been in contact with US-based leaders of the now defunct Montagnard armed resistance organization FULRO to mobilize anti-government resistance among the community.

"There is no way of knowing whether or not these people were inciting violence but the heavily politicized legal system coupled with the regime's paranoia over external influences makes it highly unlikely they received a fair trial," said another Hanoi-based diplomat.

The new trial takes the numbers of Montagnards detained for participating in the 2001 protests or trying to flee to Cambodia since then to at least 90 people, according to figures compiled from Human Rights Watch statistics and Vietnamese state media.

Five Montagnards from the highlands province of Gia Lai were jailed in March for between five and six years for helping others flee to Cambodia.