The Wall Street Journal
Praying for Vietnam
The plight of Father Nguyen Van Ly
By MARAN TURNER
NOVEMBER 29, 2009, 12:50 P.M. ET
While praying one recent Saturday morning this month, Father Nguyen Van Ly collapsed on the floor unconscious. It was his second stroke in four months, and the combined effect has left him partially paralyzed. Father Ly experienced these two strokes not with loved ones near him, but alone in a prison near Hanoi.
The 63-year-old Roman Catholic priest is among Vietnam's most prominent imprisoned activists. For over three decades, he has fought for freedom of expression and religion—beliefs which led him to advocate for a multi-party democracy in Vietnam. In 2006, he co-founded Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy organization. The next year, he was convicted by a Communist Party court of spreading propaganda, and placed in solitary confinement. This is not Father Ly's first period of detention; he has spent more than 16 years in prison since 1977.
Father Ly's re-arrest underscores that Hanoi is backsliding on earlier progress on human rights; a trend that has intensified recently with the arrest of journalists, bloggers and human-rights activists who express any criticism of the one-party state. Among the political arrests this year was Le Cong Dinh, a prominent lawyer who had defended many activists before he was arrested in June.
The circumstances surrounding Father Ly's failing health is cause for great concern. His family, including siblings and nephews were not informed of the first stroke for more than a month after it happened in July. After his second stroke, Father Ly was taken to a hospital, where he is surrounded by five guards. While some family members have been admitted to his bedside, fellow priests have been turned away. This kind of seclusion is common for all political prisoners in Vietnam, but even more so for Father Ly whose ability to inspire others, even from prison, is extraordinary.
Father Ly's treatment has sparked concern well beyond the borders of his country. In July, 37 U.S. Senators sent a letter to President Nguyen Minh Triet, calling for Father Ly's release and inquiring about his health. Following news of his the two strokes, the U.S. government, as well as members of the Australian government, have repeated calls for Father Ly to be provided with medical treatment and ultimately released. Though Vietnam is frequently cited for its poor human rights records by the U.S. State Department, it appears on no formal watch list.
Father Ly's plight showcases Vietnam's persistent violations of basic human rights; violations that fly in the face of the country's integration into the broader international community in recent years. Hanoi could start to repair its reputation by releasing Father Ly on humanitarian grounds and permitting his family to provide for his medical needs. Such a move would not only show compassion, it would demonstrate commitment to the rule of law. It is incumbent on all countries who value human rights to raise Father Ly's case, and the cases of other political prisoners, more vocally.
Ms. Turner is the executive director of Freedom Now in Washington and international counsel to Father Ly.