By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Chief International Correspondent
HANOI/BRUSSELS (Worthy News) -- The executive branch of the European Union is "closely monitoring" the case of detained Vietnamese Christian Puih H´Bat amid mounting concerns over her whereabouts, Worthy News learned Saturday, March 14.
The European Commission cited reports from the Montagnard Foundation Incorporated (MFI), which were also published by Worthy News and its partner news agency BosNewsLife, as confirming that Puih H´Bat was arrested on April 11 last year in her home, a few days after leading prayer services for Christians in her house in Ploi Bang village in Vietnam's Gia Lai province.
"She had refused to join the government-sanctioned Evangelical Church of Vietnam," said the EU's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in a written reply to parliamentary questions.
Italian Euro-parliamentarians Marco Cappato and Marco Pannella had asked the Commission if it was aware of Puih H´Bat's detention and planned to raising the issue with Vietnamese officials. In addition, "Vietnamese security police have repeatedly summoned her elder son, Puih Kui, and forced him to put a signature on a piece of paper," the Italian politicians said.
"The information provided by the Honourable Member[s] concurs with that collected by the Commission," Ferrero-Waldner wrote.
Puih H´Bat's refusal to worship within the Communist government's backed churches apparently violates controversial legislation, Ferrero-Waldner suggested.
"According to other reliable sources contacted by the EU missions in Hanoi, Puih H´Bat was convicted of violating the law by ‘destruction of the unity of the people's solidarity’," she said.
"The accusation seems to refer to Article 87 of the Penal Code, in Chapter XI on ‘Crimes of infringing upon national security’, on ‘Undermining national unity policy’. According to these sources, Puih H´Bat has been sentenced to five years imprisonment in her home province."
MFI told Worthy News that Puin H’Bat, 42, may receive especially harsh treatment because besides hosting prayer services, she also married someone who has since fled to the United States. Her 44-year-old husband, Rahlan Hre, is “terribly worried about his wife’s welfare and how his children will survive without her. Currently, there is no one to take care of the children except for his elderly mother in law," MFI explained.
However attempts by United States officials to meet her or know where she is held apparently failed. Rights watchers and local Christians have expressed concerns she may have been tortured.
"Representatives from the United States Embassy visited Puih H'Bat's home commune" on October 15 last year," Ferrero-Waldner revealed. "Following their visit, they wrote to the Chairman of the People's Committee of Ia Grai district to inquire about the whereabouts of Puih H´Bat. They are still waiting for a reply."
Last year, her children and estranged husband expressed fear that “she has already been killed or suffers from serious wounds as a result of being tortured.”
Ferrero-Waldner said the European Commission proposed to raise this case at a recent round of the 'EU Troika-Vietnam local Human Rights dialogue' in December last year. Now, "the Commission, together with other embassies of member states, will continue to monitor this case very closely," Ferrero-Waldner added.
MFI has linked the case to a wider crackdown on Christians in especially the Central Highlands, many of whom have an ethnic Degar-Montagnard background. "This Christian woman is still in jail and pressure should be raised to get her and hundreds of others released," MFI adviser Scott Johnson told Worthy News.
While Vietnam has been involved in economic reforms, Communist officials are reluctant to allow the free spread of Christianity, which is seen as running counter to their ideology, according to Vietnamese Christians and rights groups.
MFI has urged the United States to again designate Vietnam as a 'Country of Particular Concern' regarding violations of religious rights.
Under the previous administration of President George W. Bush, Vietnam was taken of a list of countries seen as the worst violators of religious rights. U.S. Republican Congressman Ed Royce has tabled a resolution to put the country back on that list. "The stories of persecution and torture at the hands of the Vietnamese Communist rulers are staggering and appalling," he added.