Y Pum Bya (58) is a leader of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ in Dak Lak province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He is serving a 14-year prison sentence in Gia Trung Prison, Gia Lai province for peacefully promoting religious freedom and human rights for his fellow Montagnard people. He previously served an eight-year prison sentence on the same charge of “undermining national unity policy“.
Y Pum Bya and his family became Christians in the 1990s and since then he has ministered in an unregistered house church. He and other church members have been subjected to police raids, pressure to renounce their faith, detention and interrogation about their religious activity, which officials claim is a front for political organising.
On 10 April 2018, six police officers armed with guns and rubber and electric batons arrived in two vans to raid a house church gathering at his colleague Y Min Ksor’s house. They seized Bibles and other religious materials and arrested Y Pum Bya and deacon Y Min Ksor (68), who had ministered for many years in a local village church as well as promoting freedom of religion and human rights for indigenous people and campaigning for the release of prisoners of conscience – he had previously been detained and beaten several times.
Police accused the two Christian leaders of spreading false information about Vietnam’s violations of minority rights and religious freedom to recruit people to join efforts to create an independent Montagnard state.
The two Christians were brought to Ea Drong Commune police station where they were interrogated about their religious activities, beaten by police and shocked with electric batons to force them to sign a pledge to stop worshipping with the Gospel Missionary Church. The interrogators ordered them to join the government-approved Evangelical Church of Vietnam (Southern Region) instead.
On 31 January 2019, Y Pum Bya was sentenced to 14 years in prison and 4 years’ probation under Article 87 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code for “undermining national unity policy“. He was imprisoned in Gia Trung Prison, Gia Lai province. Y Min Ksor was sentenced to 9 years in prison plus 3-5 years’ probation and was imprisoned in Xuan Phuoc Prison, Phu Yen province.
Previous arrest and imprisonment
Y Pum Bya’s first detention was in the 1990s, when police raided a Christmas gathering at his home and detained him for ten days for “illegal assembly“.
He sought asylum in Cambodia in the aftermath of a police crackdown on peaceful protests in the Central Highlands, but was forcibly deported in 2002.
Back in Vietnam, Y Pum Bya was arrested on 28 February 2002 after he requested permission from local authorities for unregistered house churches to conduct religious activities. On 25 December 2002 he was sentenced to eight years in prison and four years’ probation for “undermining national unity policy”. He was imprisoned at Ha Nam Prison in northern Vietnam, 1,200 km from his family, where he was subjected to hard labour and prohibited from worshipping according to his religion.
He was released from prison on 26 May 2009 and returned home to Buon Kmien village, where he served his four-year probation. During probation he was monitored by local authorities and frequently harassed and interrogated by police, who threatened to arrest him again if he resumed serving his congregation.
On 15 March 2017, Y Pum Bya again requested permission to register religious activities in Ea Drong Commune, but the authorities rejected the request and police threatened him with arrest and imprisonment if he continued to engage in his religious activities.
Since Y Pum Bya’s arrest in 2018 authorities have monitored his wife H’Bleng Nie and their children. Police summoned his wife and youngest son Y An Dri Nie for interrogation four times, informing them each time that their religion was prohibited by the authorities. Police pressurised them to renounce their faith and allegedly threatened and physically abused them during interrogation.
In December 2020 H’Bleng Nie and Y An Dri Nie fled to Thailand to seek political asylum. They were arrested at the Thai border and held in the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok for more than a year before being released on bail in March 2022 to live without any means of support in Thailand while awaiting a decision from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on their application for asylum.
H’Bleng Nie said in an interview in Bangkok in June 2022, “Persecution by the Vietnamese government has caused our family to be separated, husband from wife, children from parents. Our children remain in Vietnam while I am here after fear drove me to flee. I pray for help advocating for the release of my husband so that he can come home and live with his family again.“
Y Pum Bya and his wife H’Bleng Nie have seven children. Persecution has driven H’Bleng Nie to flee to Thailand, where she is seeking asylum.
28 February 2002 Y Pum Bya was arrested after requesting permission for unregistered house churches to conduct religious activities.
25 December 2002 He was sentenced to eight years in prison and four years’ probation for “undermining national unity policy” and was imprisoned at Ha Nam Prison in northern Vietnam.
26 May 2009 He was released from prison and returned home to serve his probation.
15 March 2017 Y Pum Bya requested permission to register religious activities but the authorities rejected the request and police threatened him with arrest and imprisonment.
10 April 2018 Y Pum Bya was arrested in a raid on a house church gathering.
31 January 2019 He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and 4 years’ probation for “undermining national unity policy” and was imprisoned in Gia Trung Prison, Gia Lai.
December 2020 Y Pum Bya’s wife H’Bleng Nie fled to Thailand to seek political asylum. She was arrested at the Thai border and held in the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok.
March 2022 H’Bleng Nie was released on bail to remain in Thailand while awaiting a decision from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on her application for asylum.
(Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam, Montagnards Stand for Justice Questionnaire for International Organisations and Civil Society by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders 9 February 2021, UN Special Rapporteurs Communication 31 August 2018, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Vietnam Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable, Vietnam Montagnard Prisoners of Conscience List)
Photo: Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam