U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine says he regularly invites the female relatives of jailed or detained dissidents to tea, and informs the Vietnamese government of the invitation.
This time, he invited the wives of four dissidents and the mother of another to meet Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, whose district of Orange County in California is home to a large number of Vietnamese-Americans.
Only two of the women made it as far as the Ambassador's residence Thursday. There, Marine says, they were manhandled and blocked by uniformed and plainclothes Vietnamese police.
Sanchez said that she and the ambassador had discussed the treatment of the women in a meeting Friday with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem.
"I suggested that this was not a way a civilized nation treated its people. He said that there were laws in Vietnam, and people who are in jail are because of those laws. I said to him these were not women in jail, these were just the wives of these people."
Marine said he had attempted to persuade the police to let the women to enter.
"You had some 15 men surrounded the women, speaking in loud voices and holding their upper arms and tugging at them. I made the point that they were my guests, and that I considered it inappropriate for them to be interfered with."
Vu Thuy Ha is the wife of dissident Pham Hong Son, who spent four years in prison after he posted articles about democracy on the Internet, and who remains under house arrest.
Ha says when she arrived at the ambassador's house, she was prevented from entering by security agents. She says they pushed her and treated her violently.
The wife of jailed writer Nguyen Vu Binh was also shoved. Relatives of several other imprisoned dissidents were invited to meet the congressional delegation, but declined.
The Vietnamese government, in a response to Sanchez's statements, said she had shown a "lack of good will" and had "interfered deeply in Vietnam's internal affairs." Congresswoman Sanchez has been harshly critical of Vietnam on human rights issues in the past.
The government has cracked down harshly on dissidents in past six weeks. On March 31, the government sentenced Father Nguyen Van Ly, a member of a pro-democracy group, to eight years in prison. Many other members of the group, called Bloc 8406, have been jailed or questioned by police.