The House voted Monday to restrict U.S. aid to Vietnam (search) if that country fails to improve what lawmakers said was a deplorable human rights record.

"Vietnam needs to come out of the dark ages of repression, brutality and abuse and embrace freedom, the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights," said Rep. Chris Smith (search), R-N.J., sponsor of the legislation that passed 323-45.

Under the measure, U.S. nonhumanitarian aid to Vietnam would be capped at levels of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, unless the president certified substantial progress by Vietnam in releasing political and religious prisoners and respecting religious freedom. Certification would be renewable annually.

Total U.S. aid to Vietnam in 2004 is almost $40 million, with money going to projects including removal of land mines left from the Vietnam War (search), disaster relief and food and health programs.

The bill also approved money for nongovernmental organizations that promote democracy in Vietnam and for work toward overcoming Vietnamese jamming of Radio Free Asia.

The House approved a similar Vietnam human rights (search) bill in 2001, coinciding with passage of legislation promoting trade with the communist nation. The Senate never voted on the human rights bill.

Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., said he opposed Smith's bill because it "will only embolden hard-liners within Vietnam."

He said Vietnam has cooperated fully toward recovering soldiers' remains from the war and is working hard to protect intellectual property rights better. He noted President Bush also named Vietnam last month as a focus country for the U.S. HIV/AIDS initiative. These efforts, he said, "would be endangered by the shift in relations under this legislation."

Smith said money to fight AIDS in Vietnam would not be reduced by the legislation.