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Vietnam releases imprisoned pastor on condition of exile to US

(Wikimedia Commons/Diego Delso)Notre-Dame Basilica, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

A Vietnamese pastor who has been sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment in 2012 has been released early on the condition that he leaves the country with his family.

Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, who was convicted of "undermining national unity," has reportedly arrived in the U.S. with his wife, Tran Thi Hong, and five children, following his release from prison on July 28. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the pastor was granted humanitarian parole by the U.S. government.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) noted that Chinh's health has deteriorated to a "potentially life-threatening degree" due to ongoing abuse while he was in jail. The pastor's wife, an activist with Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, was also interrogated, harassed and beaten by the authorities on several occasions, according to CSW.

CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas welcomed the news of Chinh's release, but he expressed his disappointment that the pastor has to be exiled.

"We condemn the targeting by the authorities of both Pastor Chinh and Hong, in particular the harassment and physical abuse they have both endured simply for advocating for the rights of their fellow citizens," Thomas said in a statement.

USCIRF Commissioner Jackie Wolcott, who has advocated on behalf of the pastor, maintained that Chinh was "falsely charged and imprisoned and treated cruelly, as are countless other religious believers and human rights activists who continue to be harassed, detained, and tortured in Vietnam."

The pastor's case was taken up by the commissioner as part of USCIRF's Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project, which works for the release of individuals who have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs, practices, advocacy, or identity and the laws and practices that led to their imprisonment.

USCIRF commended Hong for tirelessly working for the release of her husband, despite being harassed and surveilled by Vietnamese authorities.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government has continued its crackdown on activists and religious freedom advocates.

On July 30, the authorities arrested an activist named Nguyen Bac Truyen and charged him with "carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration." Truyen, a Hoa Hao Buddhist, has reportedly been harassed and attacked several times because of his advocacy for human rights and religious freedom. Three other activists, including Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton, have been arrested on the same charge, according to CSW.

Since 2002, USCIRF has recommended that the State Department designate Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) due to the ongoing violations of religious freedom in the country.

According to the commission, the Vietnamese government, through law, policy and practice, perpetrates or tolerates serious religious freedom abuses, particularly against unregistered religious organizations and in rural areas of some provinces.

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