Vietnamese police investigate dissident Catholic priest

Hanoi, Vietnam - Police have accused a high-profile dissident Catholic priest with disseminating propaganda intended to undermine the communist government, officials and government media said Monday.

Authorities have moved Father Nguyen Van Ly from his home in the central city of Hue, where he was under virtual house arrest, and taken him to a smaller parish outside the city, said Ngo Hoa, vice chairman of the Thua Thien-Hue provincial government.

The actions against Ly come as Vietnam and the Vatican are discussing the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties. In a sign of their warming relations, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Pope last month.

Authorities say that Ly, a member of the Vietnam Progression Party, was plotting with overseas democracy activists to start a new political party called Lac Hong. Vietnam's communist party does not tolerate challenges to its single-party rule.

Police have not formally charged Father Ly and are continuing to investigate, Vietnam News Agency reported.

Authorities raided Ly's home on Feb. 18 and took hundreds of documents, five laptop computers and 136 mobile phone SIM cards, Hoa said. They returned on Feb. 24 and moved Ly to the rural parish in Phong Dien district, where he remains under virtual house arrest.

Ly angered Vietnamese authorities when he gave written testimony in 2001 to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urging the United States not to ratify a bilateral trade agreement until the communist government improved its human rights record.

Ly has spent more than a a decade in prison for his political activism and is one of the best known members of Vietnam's small dissident community. He has attracted attention from humans groups and western politicians who say he has been persecuted for his political beliefs.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has monitored Vietnam's treatment of Ly in the past, but declined to comment on the new developments Monday.

Ly was last imprisoned in 2001, when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released two years ago in a prison amnesty.

Vietnamese authorities closely monitor religious organizations, and only officially sanctioned religions, including Catholicism, are allowed to operate.

A nation of 84 million, Vietnam has about 6 million Catholics, the second largest number in Asia after the Philippines.

At the grassroots level, religious freedom has increased recently for Catholics and members of other authorized religions. Catholic Churches and Buddhist temples are routinely packed with the faithful.