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Vietnam jails Catholics over cemetery dispute

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HANOI, Vietnam >> Two Roman Catholics in Vietnam have been convicted of causing public disorder for taking part in a funeral clash between police and parishioners over land rights — a case the U.S. called a violation of human rights.

Vietnam is home to 6 million Catholics — the second-largest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines — but there have been tensions for decades between Catholics and the Hanoi government over church property seized by the communists and other issues.

Nguyen Huu Minh, 46, was sentenced to one year in prison and Phan Thi Nhan, 45, was ordered jailed for nine months at Wednesday’s one-day trial, the Vietnam News Agency reported Thursday. Five others were given suspended sentences after being convicted of the same charges of public disorder and attacking police.

The clash took place in May, when villagers tried to bury a fellow parishioner’s body at Con Dau cemetery in Danang. The local government had banned burials at the cemetery because it is slated for residential development.

A villager who took part in the funeral later died after being interrogated and beaten by police several times, New York-based Human Rights Watch has said. Authorities have denied that, saying the man died of a stroke.

Vietnam tolerates no challenges to communist one-party rule and has arrested or sentenced pro-democracy activists and dissident Roman Catholics to prison time. Hanoi insists that only lawbreakers are jailed and has said that May’s clash had nothing to do with religion.

The U.S. embassy in Hanoi said in a statement Thursday that the convictions contradicted “Vietnam’s own commitment to internationally accepted standards of human rights.”

“We urge the government of Vietnam to release these individuals,” the statement said.

Court officials were not available for comment Thursday.

In late 2008, a court in Hanoi convicted eight Catholics on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils to get back confiscated church land. Seven of them were given suspended sentences and one received a warning.

Some lawmakers in the U.S. have called for the Obama administration to put Vietnam back on a U.S. religious freedoms blacklist. The Bush administration handed Hanoi a major concession in 2006 when it removed Vietnam from a list of countries Washington considers guilty of severe violations of religious freedoms.

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