Vietnam’s Temporary Release of Priest Goes against Trend


Government granting leave to Father Ly is said to be tightening control overall.

DUBLIN, March 30 (CDN) — Vietnamese officials have in recent months tightened control over those they regard as dissidents, and the temporary release of Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen van Ly on March 15 was a rare exception, according to Amnesty International (AI).

Officials on March 15 released Ly, now 63, from prison for one year so that he could receive medical treatment.

An outspoken advocate for religious freedom, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for “spreading propaganda” against the state. He had previously received 10- and 15-year sentences on similar charges.

“The release of Father Ly appears to be a one-off, related to his health,” Brittis Edman, Asia researcher for AI, told Compass by phone.

Human rights lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan was released on March 6 after serving a three years in prison.  Officials have sentenced 16 other “perceived dissidents” since last September.

“Those 16 are people whose names are in the public domain,” Edman added. “There are probably others we’re not aware of.”

Edman confirmed that Ly was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, although few details are available on the prognosis or the availability of treatment. Fellow priests told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) that Ly had suffered three strokes in May, September and November of last year, partially paralyzing his right arm and leg and making it difficult for him to walk, write or feed himself.

Following urgent requests from diocesan priests and family members, officials on March 14 granted Ly one year’s reprieve from his jail sentence. On March 15 they transported him by ambulance from Ba Sao prison camp in northern Ha Nam province to a home for retired priests in Hue, central Vietnam.

Under pressure from international advocacy groups including AI, the government may have granted Ly’s release to ward off potential embarrassment should he die in prison, Edman said.

“He’s a very public figure, and the Vietnamese government is not comfortable with being criticized.”

Religious Rights Campaigner

Ly was first jailed for one year in 1977 when he distributed a Church statement decrying the arrest of Buddhist monks and the treatment of Catholics in Vietnam, according to an AI report.

This was followed in December 1983 by a 10-year sentence served from the time of his arrest in May 1983 until his early release in July 1992. Prior to his arrest, Ly wrote a seven-point document urging officials to cease harassing Christians and announced that he was willing to be martyred for his faith.

In November 1994 Ly issued a “Ten Point Statement on the State of the Catholic Church in the Hue Diocese,” criticizing the lack of adequate training for would-be priests, the state’s interference in church teachings and its appropriation of church property.

He also became an advisory board member of the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV), according to AI.

In 1999, authorities objected when Ly coordinated relief projects for flood victims in partnership with CRFV. In November 2000, while U.S. President Bill Clinton and a CRFV delegation were in Vietnam, Ly reissued his ten-point statement and later made further appeals for religious freedom.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001 invited Ly to address a hearing on Vietnam. Though unable to attend, Ly submitted written testimony stating that the Vietnamese government had “stripped all churches of their independence and freedom” and urging that the U.S. Congress not ratify a long-negotiated U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.

State-owned media then accused Ly of inviting “foreign hostile forces to intervene in Vietnam’s internal affairs” and inciting Catholic followers against the state.

Officials in May 2001 seized Ly during a church service and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released under house arrest in February 2005 but arrested again in February 2007 and sentenced to eight years for organizing a pro-democracy event.

When the government released over 5,000 prisoners to mark Vietnam’s National Day last Sept. 2, Ly was omitted from the list despite vigorous international campaigns for his release. In a state media report quoted by UCAN, Vice Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem declared that the priest was “still in good enough health to serve his sentence.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: AUTHORITIES TIGHTEN GRIP ON CHRISTIANS AS UNREST ROILS


Waves of arrests hit church networks; judge asks converts from Islam to recant.

LOS ANGELES, August 11 (Compass Direct News) – Amid a violent crackdown on protestors and a purge of opponents within the Iranian government, more than 30 Christians were arrested in the last two weeks near Tehran and in the northern city of Rasht.

Two waves of arrests near Tehran happened within days of each other, and while most of those detained – all converts from Islam – were held just a day for questioning, a total of eight Christians still remain in prison.

On July 31 police raided a special Christian meeting 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Tehran in the village of Amameh in the area of Fashan. A Compass source said about 24 Christians, all converts from Islam, had gathered in a private home. In the afternoon police squads in both plain clothes and uniform raided and arrested everyone present.

“Many people stormed the villa, and in the same day they took everything,” said the source, a Christian Iranian who requested anonymity.

All present were taken by private car to their residences, where police took all their passports, documents, cash, CDs, computers and mobile phones, and from there to the police station.

“There were many cars so they could take each person with a car to their house from the meeting,” said the source. “Think of how many cars were there to arrest them. And they took all their books, PCs, CDs mobile phones, everything.”

While most of them were released the same evening, seven of them – Shahnam Behjatollah, and six others identified only as Shaheen, Maryam, Mobinaa, Mehdi, Ashraf and Nariman – all remain in detention in an unknown location. They have no contact with their family members.

Police have questioned each of their families and told them to prepare to pay bail. In the case of Behjatollah, for whom police had a warrant, authorities showed his family the official order for his arrest and told them they “knew all about him,” according to the source. Behjatollah is 34 years old, married and has a 6-year-old daughter.

The second wave of arrests of some of the same Christians near Tehran took place on Friday (Aug. 7).

“They brought the released members for interrogation to the secret police again, to get more information about their movements,” said the source.

In Rasht, a total of eight Christians belonging to the same network were arrested on July 29 and 30 in two separate rounds of arrest. Seven were released, while one, a male, remains in the city’s prison. Compass sources were unable to comment on the conditions of their arrest.

Two Women Asked to Recant

On Sunday (Aug. 9) two Christian women appeared before a judge who asked them if they would deny their newfound faith and return to Islam.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, have been held in the notorious Evin prison since March 5 accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.” In a short court session, the judge asked them if they were going to deny their faith and return to Islam, reported the Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

As both women refused to recant their faith, the judge sent them back to their prison cells “to think about it,” according to a source who spoke with family members.

“When they said, ‘Think about it,’ it means you are going back to jail,” said the source. “This is something we say in Iran. It means: ‘Since you’re not sorry, you’ll stay in jail for a long time, and maybe you’ll change your mind.’”

The source said the first goal of judges in such cases is usually to make “apostates” deny their faith through threats or by sending them back to prison for a longer time.

“This is what they said to Mehdi Dibaj, who was in prison for 10 years and martyred in 1994,” said the source about one of Iran’s well-known Christian martyrs. “The charge against them is apostasy [leaving Islam].”

FCNN reported that in the last five months the women have been unwell and have lost much weight. Esmaeilabad suffers from spinal pain, an infected tooth and intense headaches and is in need of medical attention. None has been provided so far.

With a draft penal code that may include an article mandating death for apostates in accordance to sharia (Islamic law) expected to be reviewed once again this fall when the parliamentary session begins, experts on Iran fear things may get worse for the country’s converts from Islam.

Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, wrote in http://www.Iranpresswatch.org last month that false hopes have arisen from a statement by the chairman of the Majlis Legal Affairs Committee, Hojatoleslam Ali Schahroki, that a provision for mandatory death penalty for apostates had been stricken from the bill. The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader, he wrote, have the final say on capital punishment for leaving Islam.

“Recent political events in Iran have ushered in a new phase in the emergence of a totalitarian dictatorship,” he wrote. “Pressure on Iranian Christians is growing just as foreign powers are being blamed for rioting that broke out due to the electoral fraud. The argument on the influence of foreign powers is well known to Iranian Christians.”

Fury

Public allegations that detainees have been tortured, abused, killed and most recently – according to a top opposition official – raped in custody have fueled fury in Iran and spurred powerful conservative Ali Larijani to comment that a parliament committee would investigate the reports, reported The Associated Press.

At least four senior Intelligence Ministry figures were fired in an effort to purge officials who are opposed to the crackdown on protestors and opposition following last month’s disputed presidential elections, the AP reported yesterday.

Iranian sources said that the long-standing rift in the government between liberal and conservative factions is widening and becoming more apparent, and the two sides are in a battle of words and ideas in mass media for the first time in Iran’s history.

“Everything is in the newspaper,” the Christian Iranian source told Compass. “We have never had such a thing … the point is that now all these old problems that were inside the government between liberals and fundamentalists are coming out, and we can see them on TV, radio, newspaper, the public media in the country. It isn’t something we’re guessing anymore. It’s something you can see and read.”

The source said the crackdown on protestors and recent mass arrests are the sign of a weak government trying to show it is in control of a country roiled by discontent.

“Everyone now is saying is that the government is having problems inside so they have lost the control,” the source said. “So what they did in the last couple of weeks is that they arrested people … minority religions, Baha’i and Christians.”

On July 31, a Christian man traveling overseas from the Tehran International airport was stopped for questioning because he was wearing a black shirt, a Compass source said. The colors black and green have become associated with opposition to the government, and those wearing them are suspected of ideologically agreeing with the protestors.

The authorities found his Bible after a questioning and searching. He was taken to a room where there were others waiting, all wearing green and black shirts. Authorities confiscated his passport and have opened a case against him for carrying the Bible, said the source.

Although there has been no mention of Christians being tortured in the most recent arrests, an increase in executions of persons under the commonly fabricated charges of drug abuse and trafficking bodes ill for the future of those in Iranian prisons. As detainees are allowed neither legal counsel nor communication with their families, their conditions are nearly unknown.

On Friday (Aug. 7) Amnesty International reported an average of two executions a day since the disputed presidential elections held on June 12.

“In just over 50 days, we recorded no less than 115 executions, that is an average of more than two each day,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “This represents a significant increase, even compared to the appallingly high rate of executions that has been so long a feature of the human rights scene in Iran.”

The report described the government’s attempt to suppress the mass “and largely peaceful” protests as brutal and also expressed concerns that those who were executed were likely to have been denied fair trials. Most of those executed are said to have been convicted of drug-smuggling or related offences. Authorities have not released the names of 24 prisoners executed on Wednesday (Aug. 5) in the Rejai Shahr Prison in Karaj.

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: AUTHORITIES PRESSURE FATHER OF CONVERT


Government trying to quell Christian son’s human rights activities.

LOS ANGELES, May 20 (Compass Direct News) – In an attempt to silence a Christian human rights activist living in England, Iranian authorities arrested and interrogated his Muslim father for six days before releasing him yesterday .

Abdul Zahra Vashahi, a retired 62-year-old suffering a heart condition, was arrested on Thursday (May 14) in Iran’s southwestern city of Bandar Mahshahr and interrogated about the human rights activities of his son, a Christian convert who has been living in England since 2003. His son, John (Reza) Vashahi, converted to Christianity while in England and in 2008 founded the Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO).

In February the elder Vashahi had received a call from local authorities telling him that if his son didn’t stop his activities, they would arrest him instead.

While his father was in custody, authorities asked the elder Vashahi many questions about his son’s activities and had him fill out forms with detailed information about his extended family and friends.

“He is very tired, because the interrogations were very long,” his son told Compass. “All the questions were about me.”

The younger Vashahi said the Iranian government started putting increased pressure on his family, whom he has not seen in six years, since he founded IMHRO.

“It is a good example of harassment even outside the country,” Vashahi told Compass by telephone today. “It is just showing how far the government will go if we let them. Inside we can’t talk, and we come to Europe and still they want to silence us; it’s a very worrying sign.”

Vashahi, unlike his father, was involved in politics when he lived in Iran. His family belongs to Iran’s Arab-speaking community, the Ahwazi, most of whom live in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.

He said that even when he was living there, police had come to his father’s workplace to ask him questions, but that after he fled the country six years ago, the pressure seemed to have stopped. It began anew when he became an outspoken Christian campaigning for the rights of minorities in Iran and especially with the establishment of IMHRO, he said.

The activist is an active member of Amnesty International, and through his own organization he publicizes Iran’s human rights violations of minorities, especially Christians. He has also started a blog called “Jesus for Arabs.”

Fighting for Minority Rights

Vashahi acknowledged that his family, which is Muslim, was never happy with his choice of faith or vocation.

Asked whether he believed the government arrested his father because of his faith or his work, the younger Vashahi said, “I think it’s both, because part of my human rights activity is in regard to Christians in Iran, and we’ve been in touch with Christians and persecuted churches.”

The 30-year-old activist said that when the Revolutionary Guard arrested his father, they confiscated all of his books and compact discs, as well as a computer and his sister’s university dentistry textbooks.

“It’s a bad situation, and I hope we find some solution,” Vashahi said, “No one has the right to talk about anything in Iran. Suppression of the church is increasing in Iran; they don’t want us to talk about that. They don’t want us to talk about it inside, and also they want to silence us outside.”

Vashahi said that despite the government pressure, he is not planning to stop his human rights activism.

“I’m not going to be silent, because if I do, then I’m accepting their logic, which means I caused the arrest of my dad,” Vashahi said. “My dad is innocent, and that system is wrong to arrest someone instead of somebody else.”

In 2008, when deciding to establish the IMHRO, he said he felt torn between confronting Iran’s injustices and wanting to ignore them from his comfortable, safe distance.

“Another part of me was saying, ‘you are safe now, but you should do your fair share, you should make noise, and if people inside can’t talk and you are outside and you don’t want to talk, how will people learn what is happening?’” he said. “I felt responsibility, and in the end that part won.”

In a phone conversation with his mother yesterday while his father was sleeping to recover from his time in prison, he said he felt that she was choosing her words very carefully. She told him not to contact them or other family and friends.

“She emphasized that we are all Muslims, and that this is an Islamic country,” Vashahi said. “So she was giving me hints that it [the arrest] had to do with the change of religion.”

Although there were no official charges against his father, Vashahi said it is possible that authorities still could take him to court or detain him again for more interrogation.

“I hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “In fact, they’ve taken my family as hostage. They did this type of policy to other people and they’ve always failed, and I don’t know why they keep doing it, because people like me they are not going to stop. Others didn’t stop, and they’re just bringing more condemnation on themselves and exposing themselves to more condemnation in the eyes of the world.”

New Wave of Arrests

Compass has learned of four confirmed arrests of Christians in the last two weeks in the capital city of Tehran, while sources said a new wave of arrests has rolled across the country.

Authorities have been warning arrested Christians not to speak to foreign news agencies.

“The government is treating people like they don’t want them to talk,” said a source. “The government is really afraid of international news agencies, they really don’t like them. That is why they put pressure on the believers, and they are really scared.”

Although in most cases of arrests and interrogations Christians have been released with no physical harm, a source said in some instances they were told to sign papers that they would stop Christian activities and were threatened if they continued.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said the source. “This is the strategy of the government. They are doing it everywhere.”

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, are in their second month of detention at the notorious Evin prison house in Tehran, accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.”

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: TWO CHRISTIAN WOMEN IMPRISONED


Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.

LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.

Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.

Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”

The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.

Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.

On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.

Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.

Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Report from Compass Direct News

 

IRAN: COURT FINDS WAY TO ACQUIT CHRISTIANS OF ‘APOSTASY’


Tribunal tries to save face by claiming pastors never converted from Islam.

LOS ANGELES, October 30 (Compass Direct News) – An Iranian judge has ordered the release of two pastors charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, but the defendants said the ruling was based on the court’s false claim that they confessed to having never converted to Christianity.

Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, said he and Arash Basirat, 44, never denied their Christian faith and believe the court statement resulted from the judge seeking a face-saving solution to avoid convicting them of apostasy, which soon could automatically carry the death penalty.

Azad and Basirat were arrested May 15 and acquitted on Sept. 25 by Branch 5 of the Fars Criminal Court in Shiraz, 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of Tehran.

A court document obtained by human rights organization Amnesty International stated, “Both had denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary.”

Azad vehemently denied the official court statement, saying the notion of him being a Muslim never even came up during the trial.

“The first question that they asked me was, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran,” he told Compass. “All my [court] papers are about Christianity – about my activity, about our church and everything.”

Members of Azad’s house church confirmed that the government’s court statement of his rejection of Christianity was false.

“His faith wasn’t a secret – he was a believer for a long, long time,” said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.

During one court hearing, Azad said, a prosecutor asked him, “Did you change your religion?” Azad responded, “I didn’t have religion for 43 years. Now I have religion, I have faith in God and I am following God.”

If the court misstated that the two men said they were Muslims, it likely came from political pressure from above, said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

“If the court did in fact lie about what he said, I would think it’s part of the larger political game that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and his factions are trying to play to garner political support for him,” Grieboski said.

Ahmadinejad, who is facing re-election, has approval ratings hovering above the single digits and has faced international criticism for the apostasy law.

“What he does not need is bad press and bad political positioning,” Grieboski said. “I would be shocked if [the acquittal] were not somehow involved in the presidential campaign.”

International condemnation of the law and of the proposed mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam come as Iran faces new rounds of U.N. economic sanctions for uranium enrichment.

Upon his release, Azad said that no reason was given for the court freeing him and Basirat. Disputing the court’s allegation that they claimed to be Muslims, Azad said that he told his attorney, “Two things I will never say. First, I will not lie; second, I will not deny Jesus my Lord and my Savior.”

The two men are grateful for their release, he said, but they worry that their acquittal might merely be a tactic by the Iranian government to wait for them to re-engage in Christian activity and arrest them again. Their release could also put anyone with whom they associate in danger, Azad said.

There is another worry that the government could operate outside the law in order to punish them, as some believe has happened in the past. The last case of an apostasy conviction in Iran was that of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. Following his release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, were brutally murdered.

A similar motivation could have prompted the judge to release the two pastors. Leaving their deaths up to outside forces would abrogate him from personally handing down the death penalty, Grieboski said.

“Even in Iran no judge wants to be the one to hand down the death penalty for apostasy,” he said. “The judge’s motivation [in this hearing] could have been for his own face-saving reasons, for the possibility of arresting more people, or even for the possibility that the two defendants will be executed using social means rather than government means. Any of these are perfectly legitimate possibilities when we start talking about the Iranian regime.”

The court case against Azad and Basirat came amid a difficult time for local non-Muslims as the Iranian government attempted to criminalize apostasy from Islam.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The individual section of the penal code containing the apostasy bill must be passed for it to go into law.

As recently as late August, the court was reluctant to release the two men on bail. At one point Azad’s attorney anticipated the bail to be between $40,000 and $50,000, but the judge set the bail at $100,000.

The original charge against Azad and Basirat of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran” was dropped, but replaced with the more serious charge of apostasy.

Those close to the two pastors were relieved at the acquittal since they expected their detention to be lengthy.

“We had anticipated [Azad’s incarceration] would be a while, and then we got this notice that they were released,” said a family friend of Azad. “We were shocked by that.”

Azad described his four-month incarceration in positive terms. He said that while in prison he was treated with respect by the authorities because he explained that he was not interested in political matters and was a pastor.  

Report from Compass Direct News