U.S. presses Hanoi on rights with monk visit

Hanoi, Vietnam - U.S. officials have visited a dissident Buddhist monk under house arrest as Washington applies pressure on communist-run Vietnam to release political and religious activists.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric John told reporters on Tuesday that human rights and freedom of expression would be an important part of Washington's policy toward Hanoi this year.

John declined to discuss details of his delegation's visit to Thich Quang Do of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, or specifics of cases of detained or jailed dissidents he raised with the government.

"In general my points were that Vietnam has reached a level of development where it should be confident enough to allow the space necessary for a greater political discourse," John said at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy.

"As a friend, we can talk frankly about these things," said John, who arrived on Saturday and leaves on Wednesday.

He said the other main policy goals were to forge a trade and investment agreement, improve law enforcement cooperation on money-laundering and drug trafficking and promote an increased role for Vietnam in the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Last week, the U.S. ambassador in Hanoi said a dissident Catholic priest sentenced in a four-and-a-half hour trial on March 30 should be freed.

The Communist Party is the only legal political party in the country of 84 million, where standards of living have improved for many in one of the world's fastest-growing economies.


Washington and diplomats from about 30 European countries have complained to Hanoi about the arrests in February and March of Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly and two Hanoi-based lawyers, all of whom faced criminal charges of anti-government activity.

Ly was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment but no trial date has been scheduled yet for the lawyers.

Ly was a founder one year ago of "Bloc 8406," named after the April 8, 2006 date it revealed itself with a "Manifesto for Freedom and Democracy." Some diplomats describe the bloc as the closest Vietnam comes to having a dissident movement.

Paris-based supporters of 78-year-old Do quoted him as telling visiting U.S. officials that the one-party state was engaged in a "ruthless crackdown" on people calling for more freedom of expression, a charge Hanoi rejects.

A Hanoi government spokesman has acknowledged differences between Washington and Hanoi on religion and human rights.

"This results from the differences in political regime and also our economic and social development and this is understandable," spokesman Le Dung told reporters on March 22.

Last year Vietnam clinched a trade deal with its former enemy the United States, was removed from a U.S. blacklist on religious rights, and won membership of the World Trade Organisation.

"Having obtained all its goals, the communist regime was now bent on stifling democratic voices once and for all," a statement by UBCV in Paris quoted Do as telling the U.S. officials. "The U.S. should not stand by and allow Hanoi to act with impunity."

The group, which refuses to adhere to state-supervised religion, accuses the government of harassing followers. Hanoi restricts patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and deputy leader Do.

On March 15, three Norwegians were briefly detained by police as they arrived to visit Do at his monastery. The Norwegians were representing the Bergen-based Rafto Foundation, which awarded the monk its annual human rights prize in 2006.