(CNSNews.com) – Vietnamese-American activists and members of Congress Thursday issued fresh calls for U.S. lawmakers to support legislation promoting human rights and democracy in the communist-ruled nation. Critics say significantly improved ties with the U.S. have done little to improve Hanoi’s treatment of its citizens.
Members of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus said they had identified at least 100 Vietnamese incarcerated for “peaceful expression of political or religious views.”
“The release of these prisoners of conscience would be an important gesture of global leadership as Vietnam prepares to assume the presidency of the U.N. Security Council,” caucus co-chair Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democratic lawmaker whose California constituency has a large Vietnamese-American community, said in a statement.
Vietnam has been a non-permanent member of the Security Council since January 2007, and in October will hold its rotating presidency for the second and last time of its two-year stint.
A new version of the Vietnam Human Rights Act in the U.S. House of Representatives would prohibit the U.S. from increasing non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam unless the government upholds civil and political liberties.
Previous versions have passed by large margins in the House, but died in the Senate, where opponents led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued that it would be counterproductive.
Kerry and McCain, both Vietnam War veterans, were instrumental in the normalization of bilateral relations in 1995.
Since then, ties between Hanoi and Washington have improved considerably.
President Clinton in November 2000 became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war. President Bush hosted Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in 2005 and visited Vietnam himself the following year.
In late 2006, the U.S. awarded permanent normal trade relations – formerly known as most-favored nation status – to Vietnam, paving the way for it to join the World Trade Organization early the following year.
The Bush administration also removed Vietnam from the “countries of particular concern” list drawn up under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, citing improvements despite assertions to the contrary by critics including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel set up under the IRFA to make recommendations to Congress and the White House.
Duy Hoang, a spokesman for Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group banned in Vietnam, took part in Thursday’s Capitol Hill event, and focused on the regime’s clampdown on Internet dissidents.
He cited three in particular– attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan, blogger Dieu Cay and writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia.
Nhan was sentenced in 2007 to four years’ imprisonment after being charged under an article of Vietnam’s Criminal Code that prohibits the dissemination of anti-government propaganda. Hoang said she was jailed “for posting pro-democracy articles on the Internet.”
Cay was arrested in 2008, convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment. Press watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers charged that the allegation was a pretext aimed at silencing him.
Nghia, a writer and founding member of an outlawed democracy movement known as Bloc 8406, has been detained since last September.
“Imagine how much talented individuals like [Nhan, Cay and Nghia] could contribute to Vietnam’s development,” Hoang said. “Instead, they languish in prison as with hundreds of other known prisoners.”
“While the Hanoi government would like for everyone to forget about these brave activists, we simply will not.”
Hoang urged lawmakers to support the Vietnam Human Rights Act, “and to encourage the Senate to also pass this legislation.”
He also called for members of Congress to co-sponsor a House resolution, introduced by Sanchez last week, calling on the Vietnamese government “to release imprisoned bloggers and respect Internet freedom.”
The measure, H. RES. 672, names 18 imprisoned Vietnamese “bloggers and cyber activists” and calls for their release along with those of “all political prisoners.”