Cablegate: Former Ubcv Monk Thich Tri Luc: Relieved at His Release,

Published: Wed 31 Mar 2004 12:44 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: A) Hanoi 0752 B) 03 Hanoi 2858
1. (SBU) Summary: Pham Van Tuong (protect), formerly known as
Thich Tri Luc, met with CG and ConGenoffs for two hours on March
30, 2004, four days after his release from prison. The former
monk from the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV)
appeared to be in good physical and mental condition, and was
eager to discuss his past activities and future plans. He was not
at all fearful of repercussions from his visit to the ConGen,
having informed the local police matter-of-factly about the
meeting in advance. Public security officials had advised him at
the time of his release that someone from the USG would be
contacting him shortly. They had also advised him that UNHCR
would want to speak with him regarding his refugee case, but he
had yet to hear from the UNHCR. Tuong was unequivocal in his
desire to resettle with his family in the U.S. See para. 12 for
suggested press guidance. End Summary.
2. (SBU) During the meeting, which was arranged at the behest of
the ConGen, Tuong provided additional background information on
his March 12 trial (ref A) to supplement the details already made
public by the GVN. The two-hour trial finally took place after
three postponements dating back to July 25, 2003. Tuong was kept
abreast of those scheduling changes, and provided with copies of
all of the court documents related to his case along the way. He
was not permitted to retain legal counsel, but his family was
allowed to attend the otherwise closed hearing. He assumed that
all of the other individuals present in the courtroom were either
court officials or public security officers. The GVN presented no
witnesses or documentary evidence, but questioned Tuong on his
past activities in Vietnam and Cambodia. He declined an offer to
present a statement in his own defense. Prior to the trial,
public security officials advised him that they would facilitate
his resettlement abroad in exchange for his silence on the
circumstances of his arrest in Cambodia and the conditions of his
imprisonment in Vietnam. Tuong agreed, and was sentenced to 20
months in prison, with credit for time served (19.5 months). He
was released on March 26, 2004.
3. (SBU) Tuong's description of the events leading up to his
forcible return to Vietnam in July 2002 matched closely the
accounts published overseas by the UBCV's Paris-based
International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB). Recounting his
reasons for fleeing Vietnam in the first place, Tuong noted his
frustration with continued police surveillance and denial of basic
residency rights after his release from a 30-month prison sentence
in 1997. That sentence -- imposed for his participation in an
unauthorized flood relief project organized by UBCV Deputy Thich
Quang Do -- included five additional years of administrative
probation after his release. He was also expelled from the Phap
Van Pagoda during that time.
4. (SBU) Unable to serve as a monk, Tuong left the UBCV and
married in 1999. A son from that marriage was born in 2002, while
Tuong was in jail in Ho Chi Minh City. (Note: Tuong also
acknowledged getting "married" for the first time and fathering a
child while still a monk in 1994, in violation of Buddhist law.
He "divorced" the woman two years later, but the child is
registered under his surname. His second child is registered
under the mother's surname, since Vietnamese law prohibits
registering a marriage for someone without household registration.
End note.) Tuong claimed his attempts to reenter the monkhood in
2001 were thwarted by GVN security officials. Even after his
administrative detention ended in February 2002, the surveillance
and harassment continued. Frustrated by his situation, he fled to
Cambodia with UBCV monk Thich Tam Van, arriving in Phnom Penh on
April 19, 2002.
5. (SBU) Immediately upon their arrival in Cambodia, Tuong and
Thich Tam Van sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh,
where Tuong said they were warmly received. They were given
instructions on how to apply for refugee status with UNHCR, and
followed them. UNHCR representative Goran Rosen interviewed Tuong
on May 31, 2002, and issued him a temporary refugee certificate on
June 3, 2002. He received his official refugee certificate (#610)
from UNHCR Cambodia Chief Elizabeth Kirten on June 28, 2002.
Rosen and resident Human Rights Watch representative Sara Colm
were also on hand when he received his certificate. Tuong was not
permitted to live in a refugee camp for Vietnamese, which was
reserved for ethnic minorities from the Central Highlands.
Instead, he was given an allowance of $85 per month by UNHCR.
UNHCR representatives also gave him phone numbers to call should
he get into trouble.
6. (SBU) Throughout his stay in Cambodia, Tuong spent most of his
time writing letters to UBCV supporters in the U.S., Australia,
and France. They sometimes sent him money for living expenses and
postage. Vo Van Ai of the IBIB was among those who provided
financial support. Tuong also sent letters to UBCV leaders Thich
Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do in Vietnam, but was not sure they
had ever received them, as they had not responded. (He claimed
there were no UBCV monks in Phnom Penh.) While most of his
letters were critical of the GVN on human rights and religious
freedom issues, Tuong claims he never advocated overthrowing the
GVN. On June 26, 2002, he sent a report to Human Rights Watch on
alleged human rights abuses involving political prisoners in
Vietnam. While Tuong told ConGenoffs that none of these letters
or his Human Rights Watch report was presented at the trial, he
assumed the GVN knew of their existence. In fact, toward the end
of his prison term, prison officials had instructed him to
recreate these documents from memory as closely as possible and
write them down.
7. (SBU) In the weeks before his arrest, Tuong heard rumors that
Vietnamese police in Phnom Penh were looking for him. In fact,
Vietnamese officials had already questioned Thich Tam Van on
several occasions. (Note: According to Tuong, UNHCR quickly
granted Thich Tam Van refugee status the day after his arrest, and
he was subsequently resettled in the U.S. End note.) On July 25,
2002 at approximately 7:00 p.m., Tuong was shopping near his
guesthouse in Phnom Penh when he was surrounded by a group of
Vietnamese and Cambodian security officials, forced into a car
(license plate 2475 plus two Khmer characters), handcuffed, and
beaten. He guessed that many of the officers were Vietnamese by
the fact that they spoke to him in his mother tongue. Despite
Tuong's protestations that he was under UNHCR protection, the
police confiscated his refugee card, drove him to an
"international police" station, placed him in a tourist vehicle,
and then drove him to a different police station, where he spent
the night in handcuffs. In the morning, the original car drove
him to the Moc Bai border crossing in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam,
where waiting Vietnamese officials took custody and transferred
him to the municipal detention center at 237 Nguyen Van Cu Street
in Ho Chi Minh City. Tuong said his original arrest record
indicated that he was arrested at the border, but this report was
later replaced by a report showing that he was arrested in Tay
Ninh province for "fleeing the country to oppose the State."
8. (SBU) During Tuong's first five months in prison, this
particular detention center was used to house some of the 155
defendants in the landmark Nam Cam corruption trial, so prisoners
often had to share cells. Block C, where Tuong was housed,
contained 15 special cells of about nine square meters each, with
very small openings for ventilation and no outside light. With
their doors closed, Tuong likened the environment to being "inside
a pot with its lid on." Constant street noise from just outside
the wall made conditions even more unbearable. Prisoners were
allowed out briefly to pick up food and bring it back to their
cells, but they were not allowed to talk during this time. Tuong
was aware of some of the other notable prisoners in the facility,
including Father Ly's nephews and Dr. Nguyen Dan Que. He saw Dr.
Que pick up food once in February, and thought he looked healthy,
but he heard from others that Dr. Que was sometimes ill. Once a
week, prisoners were also allowed to purchase food or other items
with money provided by family. Tuong's family did not know about
his imprisonment for almost a year and so could not provide funds.
When Tuong noticed he was receiving larger portions than the other
prisoners, however, he asked for money in place of the extra food.
Prison officials then provided him with a monthly allowance of
90,000 Vietnamese dong (about US$6) per month. While prison
officials treated him well, he was frequently interrogated about
his activities in Cambodia, especially about his June 26 report to
Human Rights Watch. He was only allowed to see his family once
during his imprisonment, on August 22, 2003.
9. (SBU) In a slight detour from his story, Tuong excitedly
related his prison conversations with his cellmate for four
months, Major Ho Tran Lap (protect), a former military
intelligence officer and one-time Communist Party member. Lap was
serving a twelve-year sentence for telecommunications fraud
(setting up a callback service), but also appeared to have turned
into something of a dissident. Lap told him that the Vietnamese
had left behind many military intelligence agents when they pulled
out of Cambodia in 1983, including Unit X-11, which specialized in
watching Vietnamese and other "hostile forces" in Cambodia. Lap
also told Tuong that he was 70 percent certain American prisoners
of war were still being held in secret military prisons in the
North, but refused to provide more details. When asked whether
Lap might have been sent to spy on him, Tuong stated that he
trusted Lap, in part because of a story Lap shared about another
military intelligence agent, Phan Dien, who was murdered in Ho Chi
Minh City in 1981. Tuong said Lap felt "cheated" by the Party and
had become a democracy advocate instead.
10. (SBU) After his release, Tuong moved in with his wife's family
in Thu Duc District, Ho Chi Minh City. He was told that all of
his rights as a citizen were restored, and felt he was under no
restrictions or surveillance at present. On March 29, he applied
for a new household registration book -- required to obtain
residency and receive a variety of employment, education, and
health benefits -- in Long Thanh District of neighboring Dong Nai
Province, but has yet to receive an answer from authorities on his
application. In the meantime, he had applied for temporary
residence in Thu Duc, where his application was also pending. He
had told the police in Thu Duc that he would be attending a
meeting at the ConGen. Regarding the UBCV, Tuong said he had not
yet been in contact with any of his former UBCV colleagues in
Vietnam. He had, however, already spoken with Vo Van Ai of the
IBIB by telephone. At Ai's request, Tuong had prepared a full
report on his case and was endeavoring to find a way to send it to
the IBIB. He said that Ai wanted to use the information to "fight
back" against GVN misinformation on his case.
11. (SBU) Tuong told ConGenoffs in no uncertain terms that he was
only interested in resettlement in the U.S., not in any other
country, including Australia. He hoped his current wife and 18-
month-old son would be able to join him there. His future plans
in the U.S. would include once again becoming a Buddhist monk with
the UBCV and performing religious activities as assigned. When
questioned, he did not clearly differentiate between religious
activities as a monk and activities related to advancing religious
freedom in Vietnam.
12. (U) Begin suggested press guidance (to supplement EAP Press
Guidance dated March 16, 2004):
Q. Can you confirm that Mr. Pham Van Tuong (aka Thich Tri Luc) has
met with officials at the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh
A. Mr. Pham Van Tuong, formerly known as Thich Tri Luc when he was
a monk with the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam
(UBCV), was released from prison in Ho Chi Minh City on March 26,
after finishing a 20-month sentence imposed by the Vietnamese
Government. Consulate General officials invited him to the
Consulate General for a meeting on March 30, which he openly
Q. Can you provide any details on the meeting, or discuss progress
on his pending refugee case?
A. Mr. Tuong spoke with officials of the U.S Consulate General in
Ho Chi Minh City in confidence regarding his current situation and
the Consulate will continue to keep in contact with him. He does
not appear to be under any restrictions or surveillance at the
moment. I would refer you to UNHCR for any details on his pending
refugee case.
Background: Former UBCV monk Thich Tri Luc was allegedly
kidnapped by Cambodian and Vietnamese police in July 2002 in Phnom
Penh, and forcibly repatriated to Vietnam to stand trial for
"fleeing abroad to oppose the State" (Article 91). Imprisoned
since July 2002, he finally stood trial on March 12, 2004, and was
sentenced to 20 months, which with time served resulted in his
release on March 26, 2004. The Vietnamese Government claimed that
they did not know the former monk had been granted refugee status
by the UNHCR in Phnom Penh in June 2002, nor did they have any
idea of his whereabouts. The former monk's case has been raised
by Human Rights Watch and the International Buddhist Information
End suggested press guidance.
13. (SBU) Post Note: Based on what Tuong himself said and after
reviewing several documents that he left with ConGenoffs, it
appears there were several instances where his case could have
taken a turn for the worse -- but didn't. First, the penalty for
a violation of Article 91 is normally three years to life
imprisonment. Instead, it appears the security officials and
Tuong were able to reach an accommodation that satisfied both and
resulted in a 20-month sentence with time served. Tuong could
also have been charged with espionage -- defined by the GVN as
providing national security information to foreigners in exchange
for money -- as in the cases of the so-called "Internet
activists," but he wasn't. Second, since nobody actually knew
where Tuong was being held during 2002-2003, it would have been
easy for him to "be disappeared." Third, a reading of the
documents Tuong supplied indicates that GVN authorities played by
the rules in obtaining legal extensions for the investigation
period and for the trial postponements. Tuong himself said that
he was kept informed of the twists and turns of his case in a
timely manner. Fourth, the prison officials made accommodations
for Tuong, as a prisoner who had no family to provide additional
funds for food or other items. This brief glimpse into Vietnam's
dysfunctional legal system indicates that while the GVN fails on
the fundamental principles of religious freedom and due process,
there are times when it makes the "right" decisions within the
twisted parameters of its own rules. End Note.
14. (SBU) Comment: Tuong was relaxed and talkative during the
meeting, but quite thoughtful at the same time. He seemed
genuinely pleased to be on American soil -- his "dream for the
past 18 years" -- and offered what seemed to be sincere
condolences on the tragic events of September 11. He also
appeared to be genuinely convinced by Major Lap's account of
American POW/MIAs, and surprised that others might try to trade
such information for money or immigrant visas to the U.S. At the
same time, Tuong seemed to exhibit a certain naivete, as when he
discussed the report he had just prepared for the IBIB's Vo Van
Ai. When he mentioned that he was trying to find a secure means
to mail the report, ConGenoffs drew his attention to the warning
he had received upon his release from prison. Tuong's "solution"
was simply to email the document, since he could make up any
address he wanted and the GVN would never know he was the source.
He did not seem to comprehend that if the only two eyewitnesses to
particular events were the Vietnamese police and him, then it
would be easy to figure out who sent the email. He also stopped
momentarily during his discussion of prison conditions, when he
suddenly realized he had pledged not to mention that topic after
his release.
15. (SBU) Tuong is clearly a sympathetic figure who has paid his
dues. Born in Hue in 1954, he became a novice at 10 years of age
to then-UBCV Patriarch Thich Don Hau at Linh Mu Pagoda. He has a
long history of arrests and imprisonment for his beliefs,
including a sentence of two years reeducation in 1981 for
"illegally leaving the country", and 10 months house arrest in
1992 for his efforts to promote religious freedom.
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