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Vietnam detains priest opposed to U.S. trade pact

Vietnam detains priest opposed to U.S. trade pact

Communist authorities in Vietnam have detained an outspoken Catholic priest and branded him a traitor after he urged the U.S. Congress not to ratify a historic bilateral trade pact because of rights abuses.

Sunday's official Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) newspaper said Nguyen Van Ly had been put under "administrative detention" in the central province of Thua Thien Hue.

The newspaper carried a photograph of Ly and branded him a "traitor". "For many years this man, disguised in clothes of a priest, has repeatedly carried out actions that violated the laws," it said.

The official Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan said Ly's comments were aimed at undermining the communist system.

Ly, 54, has spent more than 10 years in jail or detention since the communist victory in the Vietnam war in 1975 for his criticisms of government religious policies.

Last month, in testimony prepared for a hearing in Washington of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Ly urged a halt to the trade pact, saying Washington should not to give support to Vietnam's communists to "prolong their totalitarian dictatorship".

He also branded revolutionary hero Ho Chi Minh a war criminal.

The trade pact was signed last July after years of haggling and will give Vietnam access to the massive U.S. market. But it has still to be approved by the U.S. Congress and Vietnam's National Assembly.

PACT RATIFICATION VITAL FOR VIETNAM

Ratification is vital if Vietnam is to achieve its aim of of boosting its export industries and levels of foreign investment, which have slumped since peaks in the mid-1990s.

Analysts say recent human rights issues that have cropped up will make for a rough ride in Congress and Ly's detention will only make matters worse.

U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson was due in Washington this week to lobby for ratification.

Last week, a senior U.S. official in Hanoi conceded that rights, particularly religion and the suppression last month of big ethnic protests in the central highlands, could make ratification more difficult than originally expected.

"I think it will happen, the question is when it will happen and how much effort will have to be expended," said the official, who did not want to be identified.

Under the terms of his detention, Ly is not allowed to leave his commune. He could not be reached by telephone on Sunday. A recording said his number was "temporarily out of service".

Quan Doi Nhan Dan said police on February 7 caught two men "red handed" carrying a computer disk with "reactionary" documents Ly had posted on the Internet.

They included "slanderous" accusations he had sent to the U.S. Congress accusing Vietnam of violating religious freedoms.

The U.S. State Department's latest annual report on human rights in Vietnam, one of the world's few remaining communist states, described its record as poor despite some improvements.

It pointed to continued repression of basic political and some religious freedoms and detention of some believers.

Hanoi, which denies restricting religious or other rights, called the report and the earlier religious commission meeting unacceptable interference in its internal affairs.


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