Six Catholics from Con Dau were convicted and sentenced for protesting when authorities tried to stop a burial in a church cemetery.
Thousands of Catholics braved the cold, rain, and wind to participate in a sit-in protest in front of the courthouse of Cam Le district, Da Nang. Hundreds of police and army in riot gear with guard dogs were deployed to keep them away from the court.
The group were charged with “disturbing public order, disorderly conduct, and attacking state security officers”. During the speedy trial on 27 October the defendants were deprived of their rights to a lawyer. After a one-day trial, at 5pm, the president of the court, Tan Thi Thu Dung, sentenced two Catholics to 12 months in jail, and and gave nine months sentences to four others. The accused all claimed their innocence.
On 4 May, during the funeral procession for Mary Tan, 82, police intervened to prevent the burial in the parish cemetery which had been seized to build a tourist resort. For almost an hour, there were clashes between 500 Catholics and agents, with many wounded and 59 people arrested.
Dung insisted that the six parishioners had incited riots, falsely accused the government, and instigated others to attack State officials on-duty. Catholic defendants maintained that they simply self-defended against the brutal attack of police.
Attorney Cu Huy Ha Vu who had been denied permission to defend the six Catholic defendants condemned the trial sentence disclosing that an anonymous source from the Cam Le People’s Court had told his associates that the sentence for each defendant had already been decided and approved by leaders of the local government and the Party; and hence a defence lawyer would deem unnecessary.
Speaking to BBC, the lawyer stated that the real cause of the Con Dau incident is the widespread and bold seizure of land by local authorities. “Taking land by force has become widespread. It happens everywhere,” he said.
“However, the incident at Con Dau stands out from the others as the local authorities have employed police and armed forces to violently dismiss the protest. That’s why it has caused fury not only among Catholics but also among those with conscience,” added lawyer Cu.
Thousands of Catholics and non Catholic sympathizers joined in candlelight vigils in Da Nang and Saigon. A letter from Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, president of the Vietnamese Bishop’s Peace and Justice Commission challenging the legality of the government’s seizure of the parish property was read at the Vigils.
With property values rocketing in Vietnam, the government has laid claim to many pieces of property, arguing that all property belongs to the people. In practice, the land is often seized, and then sold to developers who profit from their ties to the government. Bishop Nguyen pointedly asked whether “the decision of local authorities of Da Nang to seize Con Dau parishioners’ properties in order to sell them to Sun Investment Corporation” can be justified under law.
The bishop went on to question “why the government is pushing the peaceful Con Dau parishioners into current tragic situation, causing one death, many arrests, others facing total loss of properties, and dozens fleeing to another country seeking asylum, when the government’s duties are supposedly to protect the rights of the citizens, to stabilize their lives and their welfare.”