Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

Vietnam Catholics lose appeal bid

Crosses on the fence surrounding land that parishioners want returned to the church, Hanoi, Vietnam, 29 August, 2008
Crosses adorn the fence surrounding the land parishioners want returned

Eight Roman Catholics in Vietnam have failed to get their convictions quashed for public order offences and property damage committed at a rally last year.

A Hanoi court upheld the suspended sentences handed down last December.

The eight had admitted the offences but said they were justified to draw attention to what they called illegal state confiscation of church land.

Land was seized by authorities after the French colonial power left in 1954. Officials say it belongs to the city.

Seven of the defendants received suspended sentences of between 12 and 15 months. Another received a warning, and all were placed on two years' probation.

Judge Nguyen Quoc Hoi said that the court was lenient with the defendants because they had misunderstood the law and issues related to the land dispute.

"The defendants' actions were dangerous and undermined national unity," he said, delivering the verdict.

The eight argued that they were merely exercising their right to free speech.

Access denied

Dozens of riot police were deployed outside the court as the proceedings began.

Hundreds of Catholic supporters had gathered, some carrying signs reading: "Justice, truth" and "You are innocent".

A lawyer for the eight, Le Tran Luat, said he could not attend the trial because police had "looked for all means to prevent me from going".

The sentences followed a series of demonstrations near land once owned by Thai Ha Church in Hanoi - worth millions of dollars.

The communist government confiscated the plot in 1954. Hanoi officials say the land belongs to the city, saying a former priest signed papers turning it over in 1962.

Church members insist they have documents that prove the land was never handed over. It is now a public park.

The eight Catholics were arrested last August after they knocked down a section of the wall at the property and set up an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Vietnam, a unified communist country since 1975, includes Southeast Asia's largest Catholic community after the Philippines, with at least six million followers in a population of 86 million.

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