Terror and fear fade in Vietnam, yet they remain

May 23, 1994|By New York Times News Service

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The terror of arbitrary arrests, secret trials and penal servitude that gripped Vietnam in the decade after "liberation" has begun to fade against the glare of the nation's economic dawn. But fear still casts a subtle shadow over this long-suffering country.

By 1988, when Vietnam's Communist leaders began a struggle to improve their nation's image and attract desperately needed foreign investment, the country's network of prison camps is believed to have freed all but a few hundred of the tens of thousands of political prisoners they held.

But although overt opposition to the government is quiescent, the police still make midnight calls on sleeping families, and an unlucky suspect can expect to spend up to a year in jail before being tried.

Political trials, which are closed to foreign observers, still result in long prison sentences for such vaguely defined crimes as "counterrevolutionary propaganda." Prudent citizens choose their words carefully, even in casual conversation.

For some, the stress of uncertainty has proved insuperable.

The proprietor of a Saigon leather-goods store told a visitor that two of his brothers had recently committed suicide, fearing that they were about to be rearrested and sent for another term in a "re-education camp" or one of the "new economic zones" set up immediately after the war -- Vietnam's equivalent of Siberian gulags.

The family was friendly with many American customers before the fall of Saigon in 1975, and like many Vietnamese with American contacts, they were subjected by the Communists to severe hardships.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, PEN American Center, the Catholic and Buddhist churches and the State Department, among other organizations, are sharply critical of Vietnam's disregard of Western perspectives on human rights.

However, criticism makes Hanoi bristle. Le Mai, deputy foreign minister for American affairs, said "foreigners who come here to press their ideas about human rights on Vietnam are not welcome."

Another government representative was asked for an interview with Doan Thanh Liem, a lawyer serving a 12-year sentence for associating with a privately sponsored American relief project known as the Shoeshine Boys that helped street urchins. He replied, "Human rights questions are very delicate, and your request is unwelcome."

The Communists overturned society in South Vietnam when they conquered the country in 1975, and deep scars remain.

Most of the hundreds of thousands who had served in South Vietnam's armed forces were sentenced to terms of up to 13 years in the re-education camps, where duties included breaking rocks and clearing mine fields.

Owners of shops or land were thrown into the streets, and their belongings confiscated. Some were shipped to the "new economic zones" -- drought-stricken scrub jungles -- where they were expected to farm and to feed themselves.

Early last year the police arrested 18 overseas Vietnamese who returned to Vietnam and were accused of plotting to set off bombs in the country. The defendants, who included several U.S. citizens, were sentenced to terms ranging from 15 to 20 years.

The State Department, hoping to protect the prisoners' legal rights, has asked for access to all U.S. citizens arrested in Vietnam.

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