Vietnam to try dissident Catholic priest for anti-government materials

Hanoi, Vietnam - A high-profile dissident Catholic priest will go on trial next week on charges of disseminating materials aimed at undermining Vietnam's communist government, an official said Wednesday.

Nguyen Van Ly and four of his associates are accused of producing anti-government documents and communicating with anti-communist groups overseas, an official at the Thua Thien Hue province prosecutor's office said. The offense carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, the official said. The trial is expected to start March 30.

Last month, authorities moved the Rev. Ly from his home in the central city of Hue, where he was under virtual house arrest, and took him to a smaller parish outside the city.

Ly has spent more than a decade in prison for his political activism and is one of the best-known members of Vietnam's small dissident community. He was last imprisoned in 2001, when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released two years ago in an amnesty.

The actions against Ly come as Vietnam and the Vatican are discussing the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties. In a sign of warming relations, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with the pope in January, in the first visit ever to the Vatican by a Vietnamese head of government.

Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's undersecretary of state, told reporters during a visit earlier this month that he raised Ly's case with the Vietnamese government.

Authorities say Ly was one of the founders of a "Vietnam Progression Party" and was planning to merge with overseas democracy activists to form a new political party named Lac Hong. Vietnam's Communist Party does not tolerate challenges to its single-party rule.

Officials said police raided Ly's home on Feb. 18 and took hundreds of documents, six computers and 136 mobile phone cards. They returned on Feb. 24 and moved the priest 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 trade agreement with Vietnam until it improved its human rights record.

Vietnamese authorities closely monitor religious organizations, and only officially supervised groups are allowed to operate.

There are about 6 million Catholics among Vietnam's 84 million people.