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Montagnards Jailed For Undermining Vietnam Natl Security

September 21, 2004 2:56 a.m.

HANOI (AP)--Five hill tribespeople from Vietnam's Central Highlands were sentenced from five to seven years for undermining national security, state-controlled media reported Tuesday.

The People's Court in Gia Lai province ruled Monday that the five were guilty of luring ethnic villagers to leave Vietnam and raising money and food for leaders of a disbanded wartime guerrilla group, FULRO, that fought alongside Americans against the Communists.

The five men, who the court said were all active members of FULRO, were arrested between November and December 2003 by Cambodian police and border guards while trying to cross the border in an effort to seek asylum, the Viet Nam News reported.

Court officials said Ro Lan Tuan, Kpiuh Gien, Ro Lan Khol, Ro Lan Glel and Ro Manh Phing - all from Chu Se District - had used mobile phones to communicate with members living in exile in the U.S. and to slander Vietnamese government policy, it said.

Some of the convicted were seen gathering with 20 people inside a house, claiming to be officials of Dega Protestantism, an unsanctioned form of Protestantism, which Vietnam has condemned as being linked to a separatist movement. They also collected money and rice from villagers to feed those living in the forest, the paper said.

Court officials weren't immediately available for comment.

The Vietnamese government has clashed many times with ethnic minorities, collectively called Montagnards, in the Central Highlands.

Over Easter weekend, tens of thousands of villagers took to the streets in Gia Lai and Daklak provinces to protest restrictions on religious freedom and ancestral lands. Since then, many Montagnards have crossed into Cambodia to seek asylum and dozens have been resettled in the U.S.

Vietnam has blamed a U.S-based group, the Montagnard Foundation, with fomenting the unrest. The group's leader, Kok Ksor, is a former member of FULRO, which is the French acronym for the United Front for the Struggle of the Oppressed Races.

A similar protest erupted in 2001 over the same restrictions. Hanoi maintains that no one is persecuted for religious reasons. However, only six government-sanctioned religions are recognized and permitted to worship.

Vietnam last week was listed in a U.S. State Department report as one of the most intolerant countries in the world regarding religious freedom. The designation could lead to economic sanctions.

-Edited by Mary de Wet