Vietnamese Police Block Dissident Visit

The Associated Press
Friday, April 6, 2007; 10:04 AM

HANOI, Vietnam -- Vietnamese police blocked dissidents' wives from attending a tea at the U.S. ambassador's house, creating a scene that he feared "was at risk of spiraling out of control," the diplomat said Friday.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine had also invited Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who said police had "manhandled" the women.

Sanchez, D-Calif., who has criticized Vietnam's communist government, said 15 police officers surrounded two women when they arrived at U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine's home on Thursday evening.

Marine said Friday that he had complained about the incident to Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem, who also serves as Vietnam's minister of foreign affairs.

"You had 15 men surrounding two women, speaking in loud voices and grabbing their upper arms and tugging them," Marine said. "I told them that it was absolutely wrong for women anywhere to be treated that way."

Marine said he had arranged similar meetings in the past and had always informed Vietnamese authorities beforehand, as he did this time.

Marine had invited five women to his residence, including the wives of four dissidents and the mother of another. Three of them were stopped in their Hanoi neighborhoods and never made it to the ambassador's house, Sanchez said, and two were turned away when they arrived.

Speaking to reporters in Hanoi, Sanchez said the officers _ some in uniform, some in plain clothes _ "physically manhandled the women."

"The women were incredibly brave," Sanchez said. "They were pushing and shoving the women."

Among those invited to the tea were the wives of dissidents Nguyen Vu Binh, Le Quoc Quan, Pham Hong Son and Nguyen Van Dai. The mother of Le Thi Cong Nhan, a Hanoi human rights lawyer, was also invited.

Sanchez, who has had three previous visa requests to Vietnam either denied or restricted by Vietnamese authorities, said some of the women were detained and questioned at local police stations when they left their homes Thursday to go to the ambassador's house.

"Barricades went up in the streets near their homes," Sanchez said.

Sanchez's district includes many refugees of the former South Vietnam who fled their homeland after communist North Vietnam took control of the country and U.S. troops withdrew in 1975.

Vietnamese authorities accused Sanchez on Friday of trying to "interfere in Vietnam's internal affairs."

"Regrettably, Ms. Loretta Sanchez has never had an objective attitude or really cared for the promotion of Vietnam-U.S. relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said in a statement.

Vietnam's ruling Communist party does not tolerate challenges to its political dominance and last week a court sentenced a Catholic priest to eight years in prison because he tried to establish a pro-democracy group. In March, two human rights lawyers were jailed and accused of disseminating propaganda intended to undermine the state.

Rep. Solomon Ortiz, the Texas Democrat leading the congressional delegation to Hanoi, said the U.S.-Vietnam relationship was growing closer, despite their differences.

"Not every marriage is perfect," Ortiz said. "There's ups and downs, but that doesn't mean that you get a divorce. You stay married and you try to iron out your problems."

© 2007 The Associated Press