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March 16, 2003

Vietnam sentences 5 Montagnards for illegal border crossings

HANOI (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) - Five ethnic minority men were handed prison sentences of five and six years for helping Central Highlands people flee into Cambodia, state-run media said Thursday.

A one-day trial found K'sor Bru, Ro Cham Dje, K'Sor Ong, K'sor Kerek and Ro Cham Huong guilty of "organizing illegal migration and inciting people to cross the border," state-run Vietnam Television said Thursday.

The five men from the Gia Rai ethnic minority group led a group of 58 people on a 10-day trek from Gia Lai province to Cambodia in February 2002, the television station reported.

They were arrested by Cambodian security forces and sent back to Vietnam, the station reported.
Authorities claimed at the trial that the defendants had links with K'sor Kok, president of the Montagnard Foundation, a U.S. based group that frequently makes allegations about the torture, murder and imprisonment of Montagnards, a collective name for Vietnam's dozens of minority hill tribes.

At the trial, the defendants pleaded guilty and expressed regret, according to a state-run news website VN Agency.

Two of the defendants, had been members of a banned organization which sought autonomy from the communist government, the website said.

Rare public protests in the Central Highlands in February 2001 resulted in harsh prison sentences for the ringleaders, and an increased crackdown on the mainly protestant ethnic minority groups. In the weeks following the protests, 1,500 Montagnards fled across the border into neighbouring Cambodia.

Following disagreements between Cambodia, Vietnam and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the United States re-settled 900 asylum seekers in March 2002.

Phnom Penh and Hanoi have made a deal to close the border and repatriate people caught illegally entering from Vietnam.

In December 2002, Amnesty International published a report calling on Vietnam to investigate seriously allegations of torture and imprisonment of Montagnards in the troubled Central Highlands region.

The report listed eight trials of 35 "possible prisoners of conscience" who, following the protests were sentenced to between three and 12 years in prison on charges ranging from "civil unrest" to "inciting local people to flee the country."

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