Hanoi - A Hanoi court Monday handed out sentences of house arrest and probation to eight parishioners of a Catholic church convicted of damaging property and causing public disorder. Hundreds of church parishioners demonstrating across the street from the court cheered when the accused emerged outside. Seven defendants were sentenced to 12 to 15 months of house arrest followed by up to 24 months of probation. One defendant was released with a warning.

The eight parishioners, ranging in age from 21 to 63 years, took part in vigils over the past year at Hanoi's Thai Ha church, which is involved in a property dispute with the government.

During the vigils, protestors had erected crosses and shrines, and knocked down a brick wall on land belonging to a state-owned company adjacent to and previously owned by the church.

Church clergy demanded that the government return the land, which was appropriated by the state in 1961, when Vietnam had a strict Communist land ownership system. The government said the church turned over the land voluntarily, and that land disputes dating to before a 1991 reform to property laws cannot be reconsidered.

"The verdicts were unfair, but I am happy anyway, because no one was put in prison," said Maria Nguyen Hai Yen, 28, a Hanoi Catholic.

Seven of the eight defendants had denied the charges.

"Our vigils were a good thing for the government, because we prayed to God to enlighten the leaders' minds," defendant Le Quang Kien, 63, told the court.

Kien said parishioners staged the vigils because they had heard that authorities planned to sell the land to private buyers.

One defendant, Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, admitted she had incited "public disorder" during the vigils.

The trial was held at a local government meeting hall rather than the Dong Da District People's Court. Police surrounded the location to keep unauthorized visitors out, while a crowd of parishioners from Thai Ha parish demonstrated outside.

Two foreign press agencies and several diplomats were allowed to attend the trial. Other press agencies were denied permission to attend for reasons of space.

(Source: Earth Times, http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/245171,catholic-protestors-given-light-sentences-in-vietnam--summary.html)