Lord Alton appealed for the release of a Catholic priest who has been in prison in Viet Nam for more than three years, when he met Vietnamese President, Tran Duc Luong and the Foreign Minister, Nguyen Dy Nien in London on Wednesday. Lord Alton presented them with a letter which called for the immediate release of Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly - a Catholic priest who was imprisoned in 2001 for speaking out for religious freedom - and an end to the harsh persecution of the Degar people of the Central Highlands. In a surprise step forward, the Foreign Minister promised that Fr Van Ly's release was a real possibility, following Lord Alton's request for clemency, as an act of mercy. The Foreign Minister also gave assurances that policies were being put in place to stabilise the situation facing Christians in the Central Highlands and that he would grant independent access to Western observers to evaluate the human rights record there. The Vietnamese Ambassador, Trin H Duc Dzu, also agreed to meet Lord Alton to discuss his concerns further. Lord Alton said: 'Words must be followed by action. However, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet Vietnam's President and the Foreign Minister and speak clearly about Jubilee Campaign's concerns about religious freedom in Vietnam. The constructive response was an encouragement but while Christian communities are still not free to practice their faith without fear of imprisonment or harassment and Fr Van Ly continues to be incarcerated, we should not cease in our efforts to bring progress.' Jubilee Campaign's Researcher and Parliamentary Officer, Wilfred Wong, said: " If the Vietnamese authorities sincerely want to stabilise the situation in the Central Highlands they should lift the state of martial law which has been in place there since 2001, release all Degar prisoners of conscience, and respect their religious freedom and land rights. "We also hope that if the authorities permit international human rights observers into the Central Highlands that they will allow them to travel freely and carry out confidential interviews with the Degar people about their situation. Any refusal by the authorities to permit human rights observers these freedoms would indicate that the Vietnamese are trying to stage manage such monitoring to give the international community a misleading picture of what is really happening in the Central Highlands." Fr Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in October 2001 after a one-day trial without a defence lawyer or public audience for allegedly 'undermining national unity'. Fr Van Ly has peacefully campaigned for greater religious freedom for 20 years and although his sentence has been reduced to 10 years, his family relations have also been imprisoned in an apparent act of spite. In 2003 David Alton travelled to Hanoi on behalf of the Jubilee Campaign to raise Fr Van Ly's case with the Vietnamese Communist authorities and since then Jubilee has organised a post card and letter writing campaign which has been widely supported across the country. Reports in recent weeks have documented attacks by the Vietnamese security forces against peaceful demonstrations in the Central Highlands. On April 10, the security forces attacked demonstrators from the Degar people (many of whom were Christians) and killed an estimated 400 protestors following their calls for greater religious freedom and land rights. Much Degar land has been taken away and given to ethnic Vietnamese settlers and many churches in the Central Highlands have been shut down by the authorities and several attempts made to force Christians to renounce their faith. The majority of Degar people are Christians. Source: Jubilee Campaign
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