Police block 1,000 Catholics from Vietnam court hearing
Fri, Mar 27, 2009

HANOI, VIETNAM - Vietnamese police blocked about 1,000 Roman Catholics from converging on a Hanoi court Friday to support eight fellow believers caught up in a land dispute with the communist government.

But the court threw out an appeal by the eight which they filed in December shortly after their conviction for property damage and disturbing public order during vigils in protest at the seizure by authorities of church land.

AFP reporters saw hundreds of plainclothes and uniformed police, some carrying batons and wearing helmets, while barriers were erected about 200 metres (650 feet) from the court complex to stop people approaching.

Singing from Bibles, the Catholics held paper signs reading: 'Justice, truth' and 'You are innocent'. Another criticised what it called an 'unjust' trial.

Catholics and police stood closely together as the court heard the appeal, but there appeared to be no tension between them.

'There is no ground for the appeal,' said court president Nguyen Quoc Hoi.

'The defendants' behaviour was dangerous for society, causing serious consequences... undermining the great national unity.'

The judgement came in the absence of the Catholics' main lawyer, who said from his base in southern Vietnam that he could not defend his clients because police had 'looked for all means to prevent me from going there.'

On Thursday, the lawyer said authorities had ordered his office shut.

'It is unfair, this court. The main lawyer is not there. The court must announce that they are innocent,' one of the protesters, Nguyen Thi Xuan, 39, said before the verdict.

Another, Vinh Son Vinh, 50, said he believed the Catholics would take their case to a higher court if Friday's appeal failed.

'Now we don't ask for the land. We ask for truth and justice... We come here to pray for the protection of our fellow Catholics,' he said, wearing a picture of the Virgin Mary round his neck.

Journalists and a handful of diplomats were allowed in to watch the proceedings, but only via closed-circuit television and not from the courtroom itself.

The defendants admitted breaking bricks on a wall but said they were innocent, while witnesses told the court that the protesters' singing and other noise had disturbed local residents.

Nguyen Van Phuong, a Redemptorist priest who joined the crowd outside court, said some protesters who gathered Friday had come from outside Hanoi.

'We want the Vietnamese government to respect the Vietnamese Catholic congregation,' said Phuong.

At their December trial, seven of the accused received suspended sentences of between 12 and 15 months, while one was given a warning. All eight had admitted taking part in rallies that peaked in August calling for the return of a church property seized after the departure of Vietnam's former colonial power France in 1954.

The group, aged between 21 and 63, maintained they simply wanted to protect what they considered church property.

Vietnam, a unified communist country since 1975, includes Southeast Asia's largest Catholic community after the Philippines, with at least six million followers in a population of 86 million.

Religious activity remains under state control, but Hanoi's relations with the Catholic Church had improved before the wave of property protests.

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