Compensation scheme to follow Hayne’s indictment of financial sector


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government has promised to establish a compensation scheme of last resort – paid for by the financial services industry – as it seeks to avoid the outcome of the banking royal commission becoming a damaging election issue for it.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, releasing Commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s three-volume report which excoriates the financial sector, said the government would be “taking action” on all 76 recommendations.

The commissioner has made 24 referrals to the regulatory authorities over entities’ conduct in specific instances. All the major banks have been referred except Westpac. AMP, Suncorp, Allianz and Youi are among entities that have been referred.

Commissioner Hayne has made civil and criminal conduct referrals – he was dealing with entities rather than individuals.

In an indictment of years of bad behaviour which has left many customers devastated, Hayne says “there can be no doubt that the primary responsibility for misconduct in the financial services industry lies with the entities concerned and those who managed and controlled those entities”.

“Rewarding misconduct is wrong. Yet incentive, bonus and commission schemes throughout the financial services industry have measured sales and profit, but not compliance with the law and proper standards,” the commissioner says.

“Entities and individuals acted in the ways they did because they could.

“Entities set the terms on which they would deal, consumers often had little detailed knowledge or understanding of the transaction and consumers had next to no power to negotiate the terms.”

Hayne says that “too often, financial services entities that broke the law were not properly held to account.

“The Australian community expects, and is entitled to expect, that if an entity breaks the law and causes damage to customers, it will compensate those affected customers. But the community also expects that financial services entities that break the law will be held to account.”




Read more:
Banking Royal Commission: no commissions, no exemptions, no fees without permission. Hayne gets the government to do a U-turn


The commissioner stresses that “where possible, conflicts of interest and conflicts between duty and interest should be removed” in financial services.

Hayne says that because it was the financial entities, their boards and senior executives, who bore primary responsibility for what had happened, attention must be given to their culture, governance and remuneration practices.

Changes to the law were “necessary protections for consumers against misconduct, to provide adequate redress and to redress asymmetries of power and information between entities and consumers”.

The commission’s multiple recommendations propose:

  • simplifying the law so that its intent is met

  • removing where possible conflicts of interest

  • improving the effectiveness of the regulators, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC)

  • driving cultural change in institutions and increasing their accountability

  • increasing protection for consumers from “misconduct or conduct that falls below community standards and expectations”, and providing for remediation.

The government has provided point-by-point responses to the recommendations.

The commission had seven rounds of public hearings with about 130 witnesses, and reviewed more than 10,000 public submissions. It dealt with banking, financial advice, superannuation and insurance.

While there have been claims the fallout from the commission could risk a further tightening of credit for small business in particular, Hayne has been careful in his report to minimise that danger.

But he makes it clear there should be no excuse for avoiding needed action. “Some entities used the undoubted need for care in recommending change as a basis for saying that there should be no change. The ‘Caution’ sign was read as if it said ‘Do Not Enter’.”

The commissioner has some sharp words for the NAB in his report, saying that “having heard from both the CEO Mr Thorburn, and the Chair, Dr Henry, I am not as confident as I would wish to be that the lessons of the past have been learned.

“More particularly, I was not persuaded that NAB is willing to accept the necessary responsibility for deciding, for itself, what is the right thing to do, and then having its staff act accordingly. I thought it telling that Dr Henry seemed unwilling to accept any criticism of how the board had dealt with some issues.

“I thought it telling that Mr Thorburn treated all issues of fees for no service as nothing more than carelessness combined with system deficiencies […] Overall, my fear – that there may be a wide gap between the public face NAB seeks to show and what it does in practice – remains.”

Among his specific recommendations Hayne says that grandfathering provisions for conflicted remuneration “should be repealed as soon as is reasonably practicable”. The government has said it will do this from January 2021.

Hayne proposes a new oversight authority that would monitor APRA and ASIC.

He lashes ASIC for not cracking down on fees for no service.

“Until this commission was established, ASIC and the relevant entities approached the fees for no service conduct as if it called, at most, for the entity to repay what it had taken, together with some compensation for the client not having had the use of the money.

“That is, the conduct was treated as if it was no more than a series of inadvertent slips brought about by some want of care in record keeping.”

In a number of recommendations about mortgage brokers, Commissioner Hayne says the borrower, not the lender, should pay the mortgage broker fee for acting on home lending. But the government is not accepting the proposal at this time.

In relation to the sale of products the commission recommends the removal of the exclusion of funeral expenses policies from the definition of “financial product”. It should be put “beyond doubt that the consumer protection provisions of the ASIC act apply to funeral expenses policies.”

On superannuation the commission says that “hawking” of superannuation products should be prohibited, and that a person should have only one default account.

In a statement Scott Morrison and Frydenberg said that in outlining its response to the commission “the government’s principal focus is on restoring trust in our financial system and delivering better consumer outcomes, while maintaining the flow of credit and continuing to promote competition.”

They said the government would expand the remit of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) so it could award compensation for successful claims going back a decade.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said that Labor accepted all the recommendations “in principle”.

“The government simply cannot say that they’ve accepted the recommendations … they’ve got weasel words in there about various recommendations,” he said.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Closing the Gap results still lag, as Shorten pledges compensation fund for Stolen Generations


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The tenth Closing the Gap report, to be tabled in parliament by Malcolm Turnbull on Monday, shows only three of the seven targets are on track to be met.

The targets for early childhood education and Year 12 attainment are on track, and the target to halve child mortality is back on track. But the remaining targets are not on track – for school attendance, mortality, employment, and reading and numeracy.

The government will hail this year’s outcome as the most promising result since 2011. Last year, only one target was being met – on improved Year 12 attainment.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will mark a decade on from then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology by announcing Labor would set up a compensation scheme for survivors of the Stolen Generations in Commonwealth jurisdictions.

The scheme would give ex-gratia payments of A$75,000 to living survivors. There would also be a funeral assistance fund with one-off payments of $7,000 to Stolen Generations members to assist with their funerals.

The compensation scheme would be accessible to about 150 surviving members of the Stolen Generations in the Northern Territory and any members in the ACT and Jervis Bay.

Labor would also establish a $10 million national healing fund “to support healing for the Stolen Generations and their families – in recognition of the inter-generational effects of forced removals”.

Shorten will say that recently the number of children removed from their families has rapidly increased.

“In 2017, more than 17,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living in out-of-home care, compared with about 9,000 a decade ago,” he says in a statement with the shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs, Patrick Dodson. In response, Labor would convene a national summit on First Nations Children in its first 100 days in office.

Shorten’s announcements would cost $17.1 million over the forward estimates.

With four of the existing Closing the Gap targets expiring this year – child mortality, school attendance, reading and numeracy, and employment – the Council of Australian Governments is working with Indigenous people to refresh the agenda.

The government will point to progress on a range of health indicators:

  • Child mortality dropped by one-third between 1998 and 2015.

  • Overall mortality fell 15% from 1998 to 2015.

  • Fewer Indigenous people are dying from chronic conditions. Deaths from circulatory diseases declined by 45% between 1998 and 2016; respiratory disease deaths fell by 24% between 1998 and 2015; kidney disease death rates decreased by 47% from 2006 to 2015.

  • The proportion of Indigenous adults who smoke fell from 55% in 1994 to 45% in 2014-15.

  • Efforts are on track to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem by 2020. The prevalence of active trachoma in Indigenous children aged between five and nine in at-risk communities declined from 14% in 2009 to 4.7% in 2016.

  • The gap in blindness and vision impairment halved between 2008 and 2016. Indigenous people have three times the rate of blindness and vision impairment compared to the non-Indigenous population. In 2008 the figure was six times.

  • Drinking during pregnancy halved between 2008 and 2014-15, and there was an 8% drop in binge drinking among Indigenous people from 2008 and 2015.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the results demonstrated “the power of a collaborative approach between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Even where we may not be on track, we have achieved solid progress in other target areas compared with a decade ago.”

The ConversationThe government will highlight the success of the Indigenous Procurement Policy. Its target was achieved three years ahead of schedule and it has now passed $1 billion in contracts to Indigenous businesses. Scullion flagged Turnbull would be announcing “new measures to turbo-charge the Indigenous business sector”.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/6jqa7-8776fa?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Flight 370 Report Shows Underwater Beacon Battery Had Expired


TIME

The first comprehensive report into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 showed that the jet’s underwater locator beacon’s battery had expired — but offered few other clues on the one-year anniversary of the plane’s disappearance.

Malaysia’s prime minister said Sunday that the country remains committed to finding MH370, which disappeared with 239 people aboard.

“The lack of answers and definitive proof — such as aircraft wreckage — has made this more difficult to bear,” Najib Razak. “Malaysia remains committed to the search, and hopeful that MH370 will be found.”

The Malaysian team investigating the disappearance of MH370 released a 584-page interim report …

Read more from our partners at NBC News

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Malaysian Christians Seek to End Restrictions on Malay Bibles


Federation calls for removal of ‘every impediment’ to importing and printing Scripture.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 6 (CDN) — Christian importers of Bibles that Malaysian officials detained are balking at conditions the government has imposed for their release, such as defacement of the sacred books with official stamps.

The Home Ministry stamped the words, “This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only” on 5,100 Bibles without consulting the importer, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), which initially refused to collect them as it had neither accepted nor agreed to the conditions. The Home Ministry applied the stamp a day after the government on March 15 issued a release order for the Bibles, which had been detained in Port Klang, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Kuala Lumpur, since March 20, 2009.

Another 30,000 Bibles detained since Jan. 12 on the island of Borneo remain in port after the Sarawak state Home Ministry told the local chapter of Gideons International that it could collect them if the organization would put the stamp on them. Gideons has thus far declined to do so, and a spokesman said yesterday (April 5) that officials had already defaced the books with the stamp.

The government issued letters of release to both organizations on March 15 under the condition that the books bear the stamp, “Reminder: This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only. By order of the Home Minister,” and that the covers must carry a serial number, the official seal of the department and a date.

The Home Ministry’s stamping of the BSM Bibles without the organization’s permission came under fire from the Christian community. In a statement issued on March 17, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), described the Home Ministry’s action as desecration.

“[The] new conditions imposed on the release of the impounded Bibles … is wholly unacceptable to us,” he added.

Ng described the conditions imposed by the Home Ministry as tantamount to treating the Malay Bible as a “restricted item” and subjecting the word of God to the control of man. In response, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said the act of stamping and serialization was standard protocol.

 

Government Overtures

In the weeks following the March 15 release order, the government made several attempts to try to appease the Christian community through Idris Jala, a Christian from Sarawak state and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Idris issued the government’s first statement on March 22, explaining that officials had reduced earlier conditions imposed by the Home Ministry to require only the words, “For Christianity” to be stamped on the covers of the Bible in font type Arial, size 16, in bold.

Idris informed BSM that the Bibles could be collected in their present state or arrangements could be made to have stickers with the words “For Christianity” pasted over the imprint of the stamps made by the Home Ministry officials. In the event that this was not acceptable, the minister pointed out that BSM had the option of having the whole consignment replaced, since the government had received an offer from Christian donors who were prepared to bear the full cost of purchasing new Bibles.

In response, the CFM issued a statement on March 30 saying, “The offer made does address the substantive issues,” and called on the government “to remove every impediment, whether legal or administrative, to the importation, publication, distribution and use of the [Malay Bible] and indeed to protect and defend our right to use the [Malay Bible].”

Bishop Ng, however, left it to the two importers to decide whether to collect the Bibles based on their specific circumstances.

On March 31, BSM collected the mishandled Bibles “to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect.” In a press statement, BSM officials explained that the copies cannot be sold but “will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia.” The organization also made it clear that it will only accept compensation from the Home Ministry and not from “Christian donors,” a term it viewed suspiciously.

On Saturday (April 2), Idris issued a 10-point statement to try to resolve the impasse. Significantly, this latest overture by the government included the lifting of present restrictions to allow for the local printing and importation of Malay and other indigenous-language Bibles into the country.

In Sarawak and Sabah, there would be no conditions attached to Bibles printed locally or imported. There also would be no prohibitions and restrictions on residents of these two states carrying such Bibles to other states. A significant 64 percent of Malaysian Christians are indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak states who use the Malay language in their daily life, and having the Bible in the Malay language is considered critical to the practice of their Christian faith.

In the case of West Malaysia, however, in view of its larger Muslim population, the government imposed the condition that the Bibles must have the words “Christian publication” and the sign of the cross printed on the front covers.

 

Christian Response

Most Christians responded to this latest overture with caution. Many remained skeptical, seeing it as a politically motivated move in view of Sarawak state elections on April 16. Nearly half of Sarawak’s population is Christian.

Bolly Lapok, an Anglican priest, told the online news agency Malaysian Insider, “It’s an assurance, but we have been given such assurances before.” BSM General-Secretary the Rev. Simon Wong reportedly expressed the same sentiments, saying the Home Ministry already has a record of breaking its word.

The Rev. Thomas Phillips of the Mar Thoma Church, who is also president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, questioned the timing of the proposal: “Why, after all these years?”

The youth wing of the Council of Churches rejected the proposal outright, expressing fears that the government was trying to “buy them over” for the Sarawak election, and that it would go back on its word after that.

Bishop Paul Tan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, called the proposal an “insidious tactic of ‘divide and rule,’” referring to its different requirements imposed on Malaysians separated by the South China Sea. Dr. Ng Kam Weng, research director at Kairos Research Centre, stressed that the proposal “does not address the root problem of the present crisis, i.e. the Allah issue.”

 

Muslim Reactions

The 10-point proposal has also drawn the ire of Muslim groups, who view it as the government caving in to Christian pressure.

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed his disappointment, reportedly saying, “If the government does this, just cancel the law,” in reference to various state Islamic enactments that prohibit the use of the word “Allah” and other so-called Islamic terms that led to the banning of the Malay Bible. Malay Bibles have not been allowed to be printed locally for fear that they will utilize “prohibited” words.

The Muslim Organizations in Defense of Islam (Pembela) threatened to challenge the 10-point proposal in court if it was not reviewed in consultation with Muslim representatives.

On the same day Pembela issued its statement, the government seemed to have retracted its earlier commitment. The Home Minister reportedly said talks on the Malay Bibles were still ongoing despite Idris’ 10-point proposal, which purportedly represents the Cabinet’s decision.

As a result, James Redas Noel of the Gideons said yesterday (April 5) that he was confused by the mixed messages coming from the government and will not make a decision on whether to collect the Bibles until he had consulted church leaders on the matter, according to the Malaysian Insider.

The issue with the Malay Bibles is closely tied to the dispute over use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

In a controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, 2009, judge Lau Bee Lan had allowed The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, to use “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multilingual newspaper.

The Home Ministry filed an appeal against this decision on Jan. 4, 2010. To date, there is no indication as to when the case will be heard.

Christians make up more than 9 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 28 million people, according to Operation World.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Lao Officials to Expel More Christian Families from Village


Katin chief says previously expelled Christians will be shot if they return.

DUBLIN, November 9 (CDN) — Officials in Katin village, southern Laos have ordered six more Christian families to renounce their faith or face expulsion in early January, advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported today (Nov. 9).

The Katin chief and the village religious affairs officer, along with local security forces, recently approached the six families with the threat after having expelled 11 Christian families, totaling 48 people, at gunpoint last January. The six families now under threat had become Christians since the January expulsion.

The eviction last January followed months of threats and harassment, including the confiscation of livestock and other property, the detention of 80 men, women and children in a school compound and the death by asphyxiation of a Christian villager. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Lao officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint,” Feb. 8.)

Immediately after the expulsion, two more families in Katin village became Christians despite the obvious risk to their personal safety, according to HRWLRF. The village chief allowed them to remain in Katin but warned all villagers that their own homes would be “torn down” if they made contact with the expelled Christians.

In the following months, the expelled villagers suffered from a lack of adequate shelter, food and water, leading to eye and skin infections, diarrhea, dehydration and even the death of one villager. Katin authorities also denied Christian children access to the village school. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christians Expelled from Village Suffer Critical Illnesses,” May 14.)

District officials in early May gave the Christians permission to return to Katin and take rice from their family barns to prevent starvation, said another source on condition of anonymity. Some families then tried to cultivate their rice fields to avoid losing them completely, but the work was extremely difficult as authorities had confiscated their buffaloes, essential to agriculture in Laos.

 

Threat to Shoot

In July, officials from the Saravan provincial headquarters and the Ta-oyl district religious affairs office met with the evicted families in their shelters at the edge of the jungle and encouraged them to return to Katin, HRWLRF said.

The Christians agreed to return under five conditions: that authorities designate a Christian “zone” within Katin to avoid conflict with non-believers; that all forms of persecution end; that their children return to school; that Christians must be granted the right of burial in the village cemetery; and that the village award compensation for six homes destroyed in the January eviction.

When higher-level officials approached Katin leaders with these terms, village officials and local residents rejected them, insisting that they would only allow the Christians to return if they gave up their faith. The higher officials invoked Decree 92, a law guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities, but village heads said they would shoot every Christian who returned to Katin.

Shortly after this discussion took place, a further four families in Katin became Christians, according to HRWLRF.

A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Report from Compass Direct News

Despite Court Victories, Church Building in Indonesia Blocked


Islamists attack, issue threats to halt construction of worship center in West Java.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 22 (CDN) — A year after a church in West Java won a court battle over whether it could erect a worship building, Islamic extremists have blocked construction through attacks and intimidation tactics, church leaders said.

A mob of 50 Muslim extremists on Sept. 12 attacked construction workers at the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) site in Cinere village, near Depok City, in Limo district, eyewitnesses said; the 24 workers, who were on break, fled from the attackers, who chased them brandishing wooden boards studded with nails. Cinere village police arrived to restore order, but the mob left behind seven banners opposing the construction.

Three days later, Islamic groups demonstrated near the construction site on Puri Pesanggarahan IV St., demanding that all Christian activities in the area cease. About 70 Muslims participated in the demonstration, trying to approach the construction site until hundreds of police repelled them. Police have continued guarding the site.

The church won a case in West Java State Administrative Court on Sept. 17, 2009, rescinding a local order that had revoked the church’s building permit. The Supreme Court later upheld the Bandung court’s ruling, but threats have kept the church from proceeding.

Betty Sitompul, vice-chair of the church building committee, said she has received many intimidating text messages from a group opposed to the construction.

“They demanded that the church construction be halted,” she told Compass.

Sitompul added that some of the messages were intensely angry, and that all were aimed at stopping construction.

She said she an official of the Depok municipal government contacted her requesting that construction be delayed two months in order to discuss it with area residents. With a Supreme Court decision backing their case, church leaders declined and continued building.

Sitompul said she never yielded to threat or intimidation because the church construction project has a firm legal basis in the Supreme Court decision.

“There was no need to worry any longer,” she said. “I felt the problem was solved. It is normal for some to be dissatisfied.”

The Muslim Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) reportedly participated in the Sept. 15 demonstration, but the FPI leader for Depok City, Habib Idrus Al Gadhri, denied opposing the area HKBP church.

“The rejection is from the Cinere Islam Solidarity Forum [FSUM] not from the FPI,” Al Gadhri told Compass.

He said that the HKBP church in Cinere is not facing opposition from the FPI but from the entire Muslim community.

“If FPI members are involved, I’m not responsible,” Al Gadhri said. “My advice is for the entire Muslim community in Cinere to sit down together and not demonstrate.”

The church had originally been granted a building permit in 1998. Applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities. Such gatherings leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups such as the FPI, which in recent years has been responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.

 

Congregational Concern

Despite having the law on their side, church leaders said many in the congregation are haunted with dread amid outbreaks of Islamic ire at the presence of churches in West Java, such as the Sept. 12 attack on the HKBP church in Ciketing, Bekasi, in which an elder was seriously wounded and a pastor injured.

Peter Tobing, head of the Cinere HKBP church building committee, said that some in the congregation and building committee feared that the outbreaks of Islamic opposition will lead to chaos.

The church is planning to sue the Depok municipality based on the allegation that its actions were illegal and caused deterioration at the site. When Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail revoked the building permit for a multipurpose building and house of worship on March 27, 2009, it led to losses for the church as the congregation had to leave it unattended for a year, according to Tobing.

“Because of this, construction began with the clearing of weeds and building materials [such as paint] that had degraded,” Tobing said.

Sitompul said the bases for the lawsuit are the court decisions declaring the Depok mayor’s revocation of the building permit to be illegal.

“The Depok municipal government must take responsibility for the losses incurred when the building permit was revoked,” she said.

The lawsuit will seek compensation for damages incurred over the last two years, she said.

“We are going to submit all the data to the Depok government,” Sitompul said. “Then we will file our suit in the Depok Municipal Court.”

The church plans to construct its multipurpose building on a 5,000-square meter lot. Construction was halted in the initial stages, with the bottom floor 30 percent completed. The church had spent some 600 million rupiahs (US$66,000), with total costs projected at 2 billion rupiahs (US$220,000).

Report from Compass Direct News

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say


Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph