HANOI — The United States said Thursday it had strongly protested to Vietnam after an American diplomat was allegedly manhandled and briefly detained by police while trying to visit a dissident Catholic priest.
"This is a very serious incident," US ambassador Michael Michalak told reporters.
He said the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations was "crystal clear" that all governments must ensure the safety and security of diplomats.
"The United States government, both here in Hanoi and in Washington, has lodged a strong, official protest with the government of Vietnam regarding the treatment of one of our diplomats," Michalak said.
He declined to give details but a source with knowledge of the incident said it happened in the central city of Hue on Wednesday. Security officials prevented the diplomat from entering a building to visit Father Nguyen Van Ly, with whom he had an appointment, the source said.
When the diplomat persisted, there was a "physical confrontation" that led to his temporary detention and left him "shaken", said the source, who did not want to be named.
Michalak said an investigation was under way.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said Vietnam "always creates favourable conditions" for diplomats to operate under international law.
"At the same time, the diplomatic corps and diplomats have the responsibility to respect the laws of the host country as well as the Vienna Convention," she told a news conference, adding that Vietnamese authorities "are reviewing" what happened in Hue.
Human Rights Watch identified the US diplomat as Christian Marchant -- a political officer at the Hanoi embassy -- and said the "assault" against him provides more evidence that "Vietnam's police are out of control."
The incident comes before next week's Congress of the ruling Communist Party. The party is keen to maintain stability before the five-yearly event that determines top leadership posts.
Ly was convicted on charges of propaganda against the state and sentenced in 2007 to eight years' incarceration, a verdict that drew condemnation from diplomats and human rights groups.
Last year he said he had received a 12-month temporary release from prison to undergo treatment for a brain tumour.
His temporary release expires in March.
The US House of Representatives, in a symbolic resolution, in December called for Vietnam to be included in a US blacklist of countries guilty of "severe violations of religious freedoms".
Michalak, speaking at a final news conference before concluding his posting, said the US and Vietnam have built a "robust partnership" since diplomatic relations were restored 16 years ago.
But he said he wished there had been more progress on human rights issues.
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