Vietnam prisoner release imperative

John E. Carey / Honglien Do
The Washington Times

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus met to discuss "Human Rights in Vietnam" last week on Capitol Hill. Co-chaired by California Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Zoe Lofgren, Democrats, and Edward Royce, Republican, the caucus meets periodically with knowledgeable representatives of the Vietnamese-American community and others active in human-rights issues for the Vietnamese people.

Vietnam seeks entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Vietnam is also seeking U.S. congressional approval for Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR). President Bush is expected to travel to Vietnam in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference. Yet Vietnam continues to act contrary to its own self-interest by jailing political antagonists for "crimes" such as posting democratically themed essays on the Internet.

Two such prisoners are Cong Thanh Do (no relation to the co-author) and Thuong N. "Cuc" Foshee, and there are others. Cong Thanh Do used the Internet to spread "democratic" messages, a crime in Vietnam. Mr. Do, who is from San Jose, Calif., was released by the Vietnamese government government on Thursday. His activities, taken for granted by all Americans, came to the attention of the government of Vietnam, which insists on regulating all media and information, including the Internet and e-mail. The Washington Times Web site, for example, is not available to readers in Vietnam. The Washington Times is too "seditionist."

While the U.S. cannot appropriately intervene and tell another nation it insists on an American-style freedom of speech, American members of Congress, House and Senate, can insist on the release of Americans wrongly held in jails in Vietnam.

Thuong N. "Cuc" Foshee, according to her family, "was detained by the Vietnamese government and has been in a detention center in HCMC [Ho Chi Minh City; formerly, as many Vietnamese still say, Saigon] ever since. She has not been charged with any crime, has been denied bail, has been denied a visit with an attorney, her prescription medication has been withheld and she has been denied adequate dental and medical care."

Mrs. Foshee has not been charged, though held since Sept. 8, 2005. She was also known for her Internet postings of democratically inspired documents from her home in California. Both she and Mr. Do went to Vietnam to visit elderly relatives.

When Vietnam's current leaders came to power in June of this year, we responded with a Commentary article in The Washington Times on America's Independence Day, July Fourth: "Recently, more enlightened thinking has made Vietnam an emerging economic force.... The news of the new leadership gives great promise." Now is the time for that new leadership to live up to its great promise.

Vietnam has released imprisoned persons guilty of similar "crimes." Earlier this month Vietnam released prominent dissident and pro-democracy activist Pham Hong Son. He was originally sentenced to five years in prison. His crime? He translated articles from the U.S. State Department Web site for an online journal. The articles were titled "What is democracy?"

Vietnam's government manipulates the international community by feigning partial respect for human rights. Vietnam has been releasing thousands of prisoners to convince the U.S. government to approve Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) and the world to support their accession to the World Trade Organization.

Scott Johnson of the Montagnard Foundation, a group that fosters understanding of the indigenous Vietnamese tribal peoples wrote, "The recent announcement by the Vietnamese government that they will release 'some' dissidents in a general amnesty reminds me of a conversation I had with a former U.S. State Department official about his dealings with the Soviets during the Cold War. 'Throw them a dissident' was what he said, and he described how the Soviets would play the stalling game by keeping Western diplomatic pressure at bay for a time."

According to Vo Van Ai of the Buddhist Information service in Paris, there are only four prisoners of conscience out of the 5,313 recently released by the government of Vietnam and he describes this "piecemeal amnesty" as a "propaganda exercise."

Scott Johnson and Vo Van Ai tell us what is obvious to most international observers: Vietnam's recent prisoner release effort is window-dressing designed to thrill the shallowest students of human rights. This is an effort to please U.S. representatives and senators without getting to the real heart of the issue: that Vietnam continues to hold political prisoners, indigenous Montagnards and others -- many without charges and without rights.

While we applaud Vietnam's freeing those formerly incarcerated, we urge Vietnam to free the remaining prisoners.

A letter from Reporters Without Borders on Sept. 6, stated in part, "Five people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for having expressed democratic views on the Internet. Contrary to the claims of the Vietnamese authorities, none of them is a terrorist, criminal or spy. These [people] have been punished for using the Internet to publicly express their disagreement with the political line of the sole party. They are nonviolent democrats."

We urge members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate not to move forward on permanent normal trade status (PNTR) for Vietnam until release and safety of these prisoners is secured. Before Vietnam can be considered an equal partner in world trade and economic activity, it must face modern realities.

While we welcome the prisoners recently released by the government of Vietnam, we urge Vietnam to now release those still held: prisoners such as Thuong N. "Cuc" Foshee.

John E. Carey is former president of International Defense Consultants Inc. Honglien Do escaped from Communist Vietnam after serving time in detention.