The sentencing to prison of four Montagnards by the Vietnamese government is “not a good sign” for the recently negotiated agreement to repatriate the 1,000 hill tribe members living under UN protection in Cambodia, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Sunday.
Four ethnic Jarai were tried Friday in Hanoi and sentenced to as many as 6 1/2 years in prison for “organizing illegal departures” to Cambodia, Agence France-Presse reported.
AFP quoted a Vietnamese court official as saying the four had “violated Vietnam’s laws” by “provoking” 83 Montagnards to flee to Cambodia and contacting a US-based “reactionary organization.”
“I find the charges difficult to believe,” Wiedemann said Sunday. “The US is not in any way encouraging or condoning, and is unaware of, any attempts by people in the US to encourage Vietnamese citizens, Montagnard or otherwise, to flee their country.
“If people leave Vietnam and seek refugee status, we believe it is because they fear ill treatment at the hands of Vietnamese authorities…. They are being ill-treated not for violating the law, but for their ethnicity, religion and political views.”
An agreement signed last Monday by Cambodia, Vietnam and regional officials from the UN High Commission for Refugees provides for voluntary repatriation of Montagnards, who come from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It also guarantees they will not be subject to retribution if they return.
But human rights groups have criticized the plan, saying it could force Montagnards to be deported against their will. Wiedemann and the US State Department have also complained that the agreement does not specifically spell out that the repatriation must be voluntary.
Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the UNHCR’s liaison office in Phnom Penh, who has defended the repatriation plan as “a breakthrough,” said Sunday he could not comment on the Hanoi sentencings because he had no information about them.
“Unless the Vietnamese government stops persecuting [Montagnards], they will continue to seek asylum,” Wiedemann said. “The Vietnamese government told UNHCR last week that they would seek to treat the Montagnards better and respect their rights. Only under such circumstances will Vietnam be able to convince them to come back.”