As Vietnamese lawyers go, Nguyen Van Dai is unusual. He is perhaps one of 10 religious freedom fighters-and he is the oldest. He has defended persecuted Christians in Vietnamese courts for years. Now he is the one who needs defending.
Motivated by his faith, Nguyen last year began advocating for political-not just religious-freedoms, for multiparty democracy in a one-party state. In early March, police arrested Nguyen along with 28-year-old fellow activist and lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan for "propagandizing" against the Vietnamese republic.
Not even Nguyen's wife has seen him since. She was not allowed to deliver a Bible to him. In the absence of outside contact the grinding of justice is nonetheless real. Vietnamese authorities scheduled a trial for this month under Vietnam's criminal code. Their sentences could run as long as 20 years.
Nguyen is part of what Human Rights Watch calls Vietnam's "worst crackdown in 20 years," under which Hanoi has blatantly detained the nation's most prominent dissidents, including an outspoken Catholic priest. The presence of Nguyen and other Christians among them is proof enough for religious-rights groups that Vietnam has reneged on promises to stop persecution. The Bush administration disagrees, and the devil's in how one defines religious persecution.
Vietnam has become the bellwether for how well U.S. diplomatic engagement with persecuting countries is working. On that count, U.S. officials say Vietnam is a success story. In 2004 Washington named the country to a short list of the world's worst religious persecutors. Last November, Vietnam became the first nation removed from the list for improving its record-a get-out-of-jail card that makes it no longer a target of potential U.S. economic sanctions or other punitive measures.
Religious-freedom advocates acknowledge some of Vietnam's improvements but say the country's removal came too early. This month the federal body tasked with advising the State Department and Congress on religious freedom took the same view. In its annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said Vietnam should again become a "country of particular concern," putting it back on the bad-guy list. After winning on two important commercial fronts in the last six months-membership in the World Trade Organization and normal trade relations with the United States-Hanoi appears to have reverted to its repressive ways.
While diplomats and other officials fiddle, dissidents like Nguyen feel Hanoi's grip burn. Last November, authorities kept him under house arrest as international leaders, including President Bush, descended on Hanoi for a regional conference. During the trip, Bush attended Sunday services at a city church, signaling his support for religious freedom.
In February, police arrested and interrogated Nguyen for a few days. Weeks later, officials raided and confiscated documents from his home and threatened to disbar him. Just two days before his March 6 arrest, he told a local reporter: "Deep down, I have always wanted to just be a human-rights lawyer, but historical circumstances seem to be steering me in another direction."
Nguyen is a member of Advocates International, a global network of 30,000 Christian lawyers who work to ensure their home governments allow freedom of worship. In those circumstances, lawyers have to fight hard, but Advocates president Sam Ericsson said Nguyen was no "firebrand." When he first met the young lawyer seven years ago at a conference, he saw someone soft-spoken and gracious. He "struck me as trying to help his government apply the principles in their own constitution," Ericsson told WORLD.
As a member of the officially recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam, Nguyen was already looking for ways to apply his faith as a professional. He mentored other Christian lawyers and set up a dual legal practice, where newer attorneys take on regular work, freeing him to take persecution cases. He won praise for his defense in 2004 and 2005 of the "Mennonite Six," arrested and tortured for their faith, whose case grabbed international attention. One of the Mennonites, a young woman, suffered a broken jaw in prison. (See "Vietnam cuts a deal," May 21, 2005.)
In the last year, Nguyen's advocacy interests have expanded. He founded a human-rights group and denounced in an October email an "axis of evil and deceit hidden behind the face of the party and the machinery of the government." Such language has alarmed Vietnamese leaders, who seem more bothered by his political activities than previous efforts for religious freedom.
In either case, his arrest presents a dilemma for U.S. policy: Is he a political or religious prisoner? He may be both, says Scott Flipse, a senior policy analyst at USCIRF. Religious advocates like Nguyen who start arguing for other freedoms are "living out their religious convictions," he said.
But the State Department demands such distinctions in order to pinpoint religious freedom abuses, and so diplomats must ask: Is everyone of a particular religion being harassed or is it just this particular person? And if so, what is this person doing?
Vietnam's religious-freedom record means it no longer meets the definition of a "country of particular concern," where there are "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom," according to State Department guidelines. The country is improving by allowing clergy training, harassing religious followers less, and allowing groups to register, even as human rights overall deteriorate.
Sixty-year-old Reverend Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest, is another Hanoi headache. He has spent most of the last 24 years in prison, and last year he joined a new dissident group called "Bloc 8406"-named for the April 8, 2006 date it formed. After a three to four hour trial in March, the judge handed down an eight-year sentence. On hearing this, Ly, weakened from a hunger strike, shouted, "Down with the Communist Party of Vietnam!" A plainclothes officer clapped a hand over Ly's mouth, silencing him.
Meanwhile, Nguyen Van Dai's wife, Vu Minh Khanh, is also under duress. Compass Direct news service reports that her phone services have been cut, and police are inciting neighbors against her. In April after her husband's arrest, U.S. ambassador Michael Marine invited her and other dissidents' wives to his home for tea. She was never allowed to leave home, while police manhandled two others. If Vietnam is reforming its ways, it might be a long time before activists like Nguyen get to see it.