Six Buddhists affiliated with the Hoa Hao religious movement including four family members have been handed prison terms for disrupting public order after clashing with police last year. Rights groups argue this is another case of religious persecution after police stopped sect leaders from celebrating their founder's birthday
last month. Some Buddhists have also died in police custody under suspicious circumstances
. Bui Van Trung, 54, and his son Bui Van Tham, 31, were sentenced to six years each in the latest ruling. His daughter Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, 36, was given three years and his wife, 56-year-old Le Thi Hen, was put under house arrest for two years. Two other followers — Nguyen Hoang Nam, 36, and Le Thi Hong Hanh, 39 — were jailed for four years and three years, respectively. They were all found guilty of "causing public disorder." Tham was also convicted of "resisting officers on public duty" by the People's Court in An Phu district of An Giang Province on Feb. 9. A Hoa Hao Buddhist activist said Hen suffered a heart attack during the trial and was being closely guarded by police. "The sentences are unfair and show the government is trying to persecute Hoa Hao Buddhists who refuse to join a state-approved group," he said. He said the defendants had merely tried to protect other followers who were being stopped by police and gangsters en route to attending an event on April 19, 2017 marking the anniversary of Trung's mother's death. Police confiscated motorcycle registration documents and scooters, beat two people until they were unconscious and injured many others, activists claim. Trung and Tham were arrested months later as they returned home from the mourning ceremony of another sect member on June 26. Police also gave Trung's youngest daughter a beating that rendered her unconsciousness and saw her hospitalized, the family claims. In 2012, Trung and Tham received respective jail terms of four years and 30 months for opposing authorities on duty. Trung was accused of preaching at his house without the proper authorization. He said he suffered intrusive surveillance, harassment and intimidation on a regular basis.
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"Vietnam should suspend the charges against the six Hoa Hao Buddhist followers and investigate whether the police action against them was discriminatory or a case of religious persecution," Human Rights Watch said ahead of the trial. "This appears to be the latest instance of official persecution of members of this religion," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director. "The government should stop harassing and arresting those who belong to unsanctioned religious groups and leave people to practice their faith as they see fit." Nine more people from the same sect received prison sentences totaling 50 years and 10 years' probation for conducting a campaign against the government in December and January. Four Buddhists were handed a total of 31 years in prison
on Jan. 23 for conducting campaigns against the government. At least 129 people are imprisoned in Vietnam for expressing views that are critical of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups not approved by the authorities, or joining civil or political organizations that the ruling Communist Party deems threatening to its monopoly on power, Human Rights Watch said.