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Vietnam, US far apart on human rights

Friday - 4/19/2013, 9:00am  ET

CHRIS BRUMMITT
Associated Press

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- Vietnamese authorities seeking to stop a well-known democracy activist from meeting an American diplomat last weekend deployed an unusual weapon -- a group of elderly ladies.

The women blocked the road leading to the dissident's house, preventing a U.S. Embassy vehicle from reaching the house. The vehicle was supposed to take the dissident to a downtown hotel to meet with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Baer, who was trying to get first-hand accounts from activists and the families of those imprisoned inside the one-party, authoritarian country.

Another activist on the guest list was hauled into a police station until the visiting American had departed.

The efforts made by Vietnamese authorities to stop them show the gulf between the two countries on human rights, and continue to be a stumbling block in forging stronger ties between Washington and a country seen as possible counterbalance against China's influence in Asia.

Baer was in Vietnam as part of a long-running "human rights dialogue" between the two governments that formalizes America's efforts to get Vietnam to relax controls on political and religious expression and to stop arresting those pushing for multiparty democracy. Baer had sought meetings with dissidents on Saturday after talks between the two sides on American concerns ended on Friday.

"Obviously this taints the whole experience" and raises doubts about the Vietnamese government's promise to make progress on human rights, said Baer by telephone from Oslo, where he stopped on his return from Hanoi.

"What could have been a platform for solid movement has now been marred by behavior that calls into question the sincerity of any commitments they might make," he said.

As it puts increasing emphasis on Asia in its foreign policy, the United States wants stronger diplomatic, economic and security ties with Vietnam. But the U.S has also made it clear that progress in Vietnam's human rights record is needed for this engagement to happen quickly and fully. So far, the Communist Party shows few signs of bending. While some members are thought to be open to discussions about gradual change, its leaders are not listening, anxious about losing power and access to lucrative sections of the economy.

This year's human rights dialogue was delayed by several months because of American concerns that the previous session in Washington in November 2011 had failed to bring any substantive changes. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2012 at least 40 dissidents were convicted and sentenced to prison; 40 more were locked up in the first six weeks of 2013.

Baer wanted to meet Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Hong Son, two dissidents well known to Western governments and rights organizations. They have each served four-year prison terms in the past. Both are under frequent surveillance and are often harassed, yet remain publicly committed to challenging the party, prepared to accept the risks to them and their family in doing so.

Dai said he informed the political officer at the American Embassy that police and other security officers were gathering at his home, preventing him from leaving for the meeting. The officer told him he would drive to the house to pick him up. But when the car arrived, it was blocked by about 10 women from the neighborhood who had been told by authorities to stand on the road, Dai said.

"I don't know why they used this crazy way," Dai said. "I think it is the first time."

Asked for comment, the Vietnamese government responded in a statement: "Vietnamese authorities created the conditions for the delegation led by Daniel Baer to meet with some individuals of concern to the American side."

Baer said he was able to meet with families of two political prisoners -- Le Quoc Quan and Cu Huy Ha Vu -- for 1
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