VOICE Canada is one of the affiliate organizations of VOICE.
VOICE Canada is one of the affiliate organizations of VOICE.
See the pictures below that highlight what we achieved in the past two years, from four main activities: Training, Civil Society, Advocacy and Refugee Resettlement.
We achieved this not only by the efforts of VOICE members but also through the support of volunteers, VOICE affiliates, partners and especially our enthusiastic supporters in Vietnam and around the world. Thank you to all of you who have made this success possible!
Ahead of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Vietnam’s human rights record at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on 22 January 2019, CIVICUS speaks to Anna Nguyen from VOICE, a civil society organisation that promotes civil society development and advocates for human rights, including refugee protection, and the rule of law in Vietnam. Founded in 2007, VOICE’s mission is to empower individuals to build a strong, independent and vibrant civil society.
A Vietnamese-Australian lawyer, Anna Nguyen is VOICE’s Director of Programs. She oversees a training programme for Vietnamese activists in Southeast Asia, a refugee resettlement programme in Thailand and advocacy efforts, including at the UN, to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Vietnam.
Along with VOICE, Civil Society Forum, Human Rights Foundation and VOICE Vietnam, CIVICUS made a UPR submission on to the Human Rights Council in July 2018.
What is the current situation for human rights and civil society in Vietnam?
The human rights situation in Vietnam is dire. While the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are supposedly protected by the constitution, they are not respected in practice. In 2018, 88 human rights defenders (HRDs) were arrested, and at least 194 remain in prison for peacefully exercising their civil and political rights. This is a staggering number and surely shows that the government of Vietnam is doing as much as it can to stifle political dissent.
Civil society in Vietnam has been steadily growing since mass protests over territorial disputes with China were held in Hanoi and Saigon in 2011, and thanks to the increasing use of social media such as Facebook and YouTube. There are more independent civil society groups now than there were seven years ago, and more people are willing to speak up on Facebook and attend protests to raise awareness of atrocities committed by the government, as well as attend training programmes relating to human rights. On the other hand, the Vietnamese government has used many tactics to stifle the development of an independent civil society movement, including the brutal suppression of protests, the physical harassment and imprisonment of HRDs and its refusal to pass a law on association.
How is the government persecuting online and offline dissent?
Peaceful protests are subject to brutal suppression, and their participants are victims of harassment and continuous surveillance. In June 2018, following a mass protest opposing proposed cybersecurity and Special Economic Zones legislation, the authorities cracked down heavily on peaceful protesters by using teargas and excessive force to prevent and punish participation, resulting in a range of human rights violations, including torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.
Peaceful dissidents are often harassed, physically assaulted, criminalised with vague national security laws and imprisoned. In 2018, nine of the many peaceful activists imprisoned received the longest prison terms available, ranging from 12 to 20 years.
Bloggers in Vietnam who have been at the forefront of exposing abuses by the state, including human rights violations, corruption, land grabbing and environmental issues have faced intimidation, threats and imprisonment.
Prominent blogger and entrepreneur, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, was sentenced to 16 years jail for “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration in January 2010 while Hoang Duc Binh, a blogger and environmental activist, was sentenced to 14 years after being convicted on two separate charges of “resisting officers acting under their duty” and for “abusing freedoms and democratic rights”
In July 2017, Tran Thi Nga, a blogger and labour rights activist was convicted of “anti-state propaganda” and sentenced to 9 years’ imprisonment for sharing articles and videos online highlighting ongoing rights abuses tied to environmental crises and political corruption.
A draconian Cybersecurity Law, inspired by China’s, entered into force on 1 January 2019. This law tightens the government’s control of information and its ability to silence its online critics. Among other things, it allows the government to demand the removal, within 24 hours, of any posts that are deemed critical.
Why is the UPR process important for civil society?
The UPR process is open to all actors, not just states, which is why it is a great opportunity for civil society, and especially unregistered civil society groups, to get involved in the process by bringing in a perspective that is different from that of governments. It gives civil society an opportunity to highlight a state’s human rights record, as well as to provide recommendations to improve it.
Has Vietnamese civil society been able to participate in the UPR process? Has it encountered any challenges in doing so?
While the Vietnamese government held national consultations during the UPR process, it did not include independent and unregistered groups such as VOICE. This has been a challenge, because we haven’t had an open dialogue with the state.
In addition, reprisals are a big factor. Some HRDs who have been involved in the UPR process have faced difficulties upon returning home to Vietnam, including the confiscation of their passports and continuous surveillance and harassment. Reprisals are just another tactic that the government uses to stifle the growth of a civil society movement and punish civil society for peacefully raising its voice about the state’s failure to meet its human rights obligations.
What are some of civil society’s key recommendation to states participating in the upcoming review of Vietnam at the Human Rights Council?
Civil society is calling on states to urge Vietnam’s government to amend the Penal Code to ensure that ambiguous provisions relating to national security – notably articles 79 (109), 87 (116), 88 (117), 89 (118), 91 (121), 257 (330) and 258 (331) – are clearly defined or removed so they cannot be applied in an arbitrary manner to stifle legitimate and peaceful dissent and the freedom of expression.
We also want states to recommend that the government amend or repeal legislation specifically related to the freedoms of expression and information, and related to privacy and surveillance, in line with international standards such as articles 17, 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are particularly concerned about the Press Law, the Law on Publications and the Cybersecurity Law, as well as about Decree No. 72/2013/ND-CP on the management of internet services and information and Decree No.174/2013/ND-CP, which imposes penalties for the violation of post, telecommunication, information technology and radio regulations.
State representatives at the Human Rights Council should also call on Vietnam to ensure that civil society activists, HRDs, journalists and bloggers are provided with a safe and secure environment in which to carry out their work. They should also conduct impartial, thorough and effective investigations into all cases of attacks on and harassment and intimidation against them and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Finally, there should be recommendations to ensure the independent and effective investigation of and implementation of remedy for arbitrary detention and physical or mental abuse by the state, with special attention to the protection of HRDs. Specifically, the government of Vietnam should be urged to release, unconditionally and immediately, all HRDs, including journalists and bloggers, detained for exercising their fundamental rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and drop all charges against them.
What would you like to see come out of the UPR review?
We hope that UN member states in the Human Rights Council will listen to civil society and our recommendations, and that a diverse range of civil society’s human rights concerns, including the rights of women, young people and LGBTQI people, and civil and political rights, will be addressed by strong recommendations – by recommendations that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. This will allow civil society groups and other stakeholders to monitor easily whether the government of Vietnam follows through with their implementation.
We would also like Vietnam to have more dialogue with unregistered and independent groups, to ensure there is a balanced representation of civil society in national dialogues for future reviews. This will strengthen the impact of the UPR process and improve the integrity of the mechanism.
What are you plans following the UPR review, and what support is needed from the international community and international civil society?
VOICE will raise awareness of the commitments made by Vietnam through translation and dissemination among the public, media, parliamentarians, embassies and civil society.
We will make sure to follow up on the recommendations made to Vietnam to ensure they are being followed through by holding regular stakeholder meetings, including with other civil society groups and embassies in Hanoi. We will continue to update the states that have made specific recommendations during advocacy meetings, to let them know whether progress has been made and urge them to put some additional pressure if it has not.
We would like the international community, including international civil society organisations, to keep up the pressure so the government of Vietnam follows through with the recommendations they have received, and to provide a platform for civil society groups and HRDs to raise awareness about the state’s progress or lack of progress in human rights.
Source from CIVICUS. VIETNAM: ‘We hope UN member states will listen to civil society’ .
Our story for #GivingTuesday 2018
Our goal for 2018 is to raise $650,000 to resettle 50 stateless Vietnamese refugees living in Thailand.
Some has been living there for more than 20 years, undocumented. Some has been hunted by Communist Vietnam.
Ho Thi Bich Khuong, a civil rights activist, fled to Bangkok in 2016. Her husband was “found dead”, she herself was arrested 3 times and served a total of 7 years in prison. Upon her release, police confiscated her house and shop, and barred her friends from giving her shelter. Her family was on the “attack-on-sight” list, her son almost died from a hit-and-run accident. Vietnam police made her life as unbearable as can be.
Her two children deserve a better life in Canada, so do 11 other families we are helping. They need your help, too.
The totally cost will be 650,000. $500,000 for income support (mandatory from Canadian government), and $150,000 for fees and paperwork.
We’ve held 14 fundraisers this year and raised over $250,000. That donation money came from the goodwill of thousands of Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese around the world. Unfortunately, it is only enough for 30 refugees. What will happen to the fate of the other 20? Who will go and who will stay? The answer is in your helping hands.
Help us achieve this goal. Help us bring them to Canada.
* Some pictures of Vietnamese refugees in Thailand:
Letter to Trinh Hoi
Meaningful work is not easy. There are many terrible people in society. They are dirty and do not want anyone to look cleaner than them. They do not want anyone to become a lotus. They want to pull the lotus into the mud. But they are not able to succeed because the lotus will become a lotus! Around Trinh Hoi are several people who understand you, sympathize with you, admire your soul and great heart. If it wasn’t for you, who would help the suffering victims? I am one of the people who recognize your hard work. My check is very small compared to the amount VOICE needs, but it comes from the heart of a lady at 84 years old, with a small retirement (only 650 usd/month. I do not ask for SSI). I decided to cancel my trip to see family in Canada so I could send this money to VOICE, to encourage Trinh Hoi and the work done by VOICE. I wish Trinh Hoi and all of you to keep up your spirits.
VOICE Presents Documentary on Imprisoned Vietnamese Blogger Mother Mushroom
Bangkok, 27 June 2018 – Noting the one-year anniversary of her first trial, VOICE reiterates its call for the Vietnamese government to immediately and unconditionally release citizen journalist, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, popularly known as Mother Mushroom, with a screening of When Mother’s Away, a moving portrait of Mother Mushroom and her family. Screening from 7:00PM at the FCCT.
When Mother’s Away is a personal portrait that follows the life of Mother Mushroom’s mother, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan, solely taking care of her two young grandchildren, while they struggle to continue on their lives and support Mother Mushroom, after she is sent to prison. In its depiction of an ordinary family facing an extraordinary circumstance, the film explores the themes of family and motherhood. Following the screening, VOICE will lead a panel discussion on the film and situation in Vietnam.
On 29 June 2017, Mother Mushroom, 38, was handed a ten-year prison sentence under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, often wielded against those whose only crime has been to speak out for human rights. A blogger, known for her writing about police brutality, freedom of expression, land confiscation, and the Formosa environmental disaster, Mother Mushroom was held in detention following her arrest in October 2016 until hours before her June trial. At her appeal, November 30, family and friends assembled outside the courthouse and were attacked by thugs.
Since February 2018, Mother Mushroom has been held in a remote prison over 1000 kilometers from her home. Family visits are difficult and expensive. At her last visit, Mother Mushroom’s mother revealed her poor health. In May, Mother Mushroom underwent a 6-day hunger strike to protest against prison treatment. Her family’s request to send her basic medicine and the Holy Bible was denied by the prison authorities.
VOICE reiterates its calls for the Vietnamese authorities to comply with their international human rights obligations, and to immediately and unconditionally release Mother Mushroom, and urges the international community to intervene at the highest possible levels to support her immediate release.
VOICE continues to stand by Mother Mushroom’s call for all Vietnamese to continue fighting for their rights for a better and greater nation.
We each only have one life to live but if given the choice, I would still do it exactly the same… I hope everyone will soon raise their own voice and fight for their rights so that they can overcome their own fears, and build a better and greater nation – Mother Mushroom.
VOICE is a non-profit, non-governmental organization working in the field of promoting civil society development, advocacy for human rights, including refugee protection, and rule of law in Vietnam. Founded in 2007, VOICE’s mission is to empower individuals in order to envision a strong, independent, and vibrant civil society.
Context and Update
Vietnam implements a number of vaguely-worded and restrictive laws to punish individuals for exercising fundamental rights including:
a. Freedom of Religion
Since the new Government of Vietnam came into power in May 2016, at least 59 human rights defenders have been arrested and imprisoned, many of whom are Christian fighting for religious freedom. The authorities have instigated state-sponsored assaults against those who dare to speak up, especially Catholic villagers in Central Vietnam whose lives have been adversely affected by the Formosa environmental disaster.
‘Hoi Co Do’ (The Red Flag Groups) have been formed and sponsored by the authorities in many parts of Vietnam to incite violence and hatred against parishes critical of the government’s policy concerning the Formosa incident. For example, on 17 December 2017, Parish Ke Gai of Diocese Vinh in Nghe An Province was attacked by hundreds of members of a Red Flag Group due to their activism in protecting the environment resulting in scores of parishioners being injured. See video clip below produced by the Redemptorist Church (with English subtitle):
This marks the first time a new tactic has been used by the authorities to set non-Catholics against Catholics. It is a deliberate state attempt to create tension and sow distrust between faith-based groups.
The independent Hoa Hao Buddhist Church has also suffered much throughout this past year. Buddhist ceremonies organized by the Church were shut down by the authorities and at least, fifteen (15) members of the Church were arrested last year. One of their leaders, Mr Vuong Van Tha, was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment while his son was sentenced to 7 years on 23 January 2018.
Further, the authorities continue to harass and persecute religious leaders of unregistered religious groups by either demolishing their temple and confiscating the property (Lien Tri Temple in Saigon) or attempting to confiscate it (Thien An Monastery in Hue) or engineering direct attacks (including physical assaults) against many Protestant church leaders in the Highlands. Many of them are, to date, banned from traveling within and outside of Vietnam despite guarantees made in the new Law on Religion and Belief concerning freedom of religion and under Vietnam’s own Constitution.
b. Freedom of Expression
Freedom of Expression continues to be severely restricted by Article 258 (343), 79 (109), and 88 (117) of the Penal Code despite the latest amendments in early 2018.
Article 258, also known as ‘Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.’ (now revised as Article 343 in Vietnam’s Penal Code, which came into effect on 1 January 2018). Those who are convicted under this article face up to seven years’ imprisonment. Article 258 has been used to prosecute a wide variety of people for allegedly ‘abusing’ their freedom of speech.
Article 88, also known as ‘conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ (now revised as Article 117) has been widely used to imprison those who raise their voice in whatsoever forms to criticize the government and the Communist Party. The range of penalties is between three and twenty years imprisonment.
Article 79, also known as ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’ (now revised as Article 109) is designed to prevent dissidents from organizing themselves to compete politically. This law can be used against anyone who peacefully organizes to oppose the party’s dominance or its policies. Organizers, instigators and active participants can face between twelve years to life imprisonment or capital punishment, while other accomplices can face between five to fifteen years imprisonment.
c. Freedom of Assembly
The Law on Association has not been adopted though at least 16 draft bills had been brought before the National Assembly in the past decade. The delay indicates the constant vigilance and reluctance of the authorities in enacting a law they consider to be ‘politically sensitive’. The latest bill itself, however, failed to be passed after many civil society organizations raised their concern about its repressiveness. Article 8, inter alia, bans every association from cooperating with foreign organizations or receiving foreign funds.
Association in the form of political organization or party is strictly banned. Members shall be charged with ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’ and given lengthy prison terms, including life imprisonment or capital punishment under Article 79/109 of the Penal Code.
The Law on Demonstration was scheduled to be discussed and passed by the National Assembly in 2015, however, it was removed from the agenda in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The National Assembly itself does not plan on bringing the law back to the table for discussions, while at the same time, the Ministry of Public Security – the government agency responsible for drafting this law – keeps delaying the submission of the draft law.
Independent labour unions are banned. Strikes must be registered under harsh requirements, and labour activists are subject to continuous surveillance and harassment.
GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations) are given space for their activities on the condition that they work to further the government’s interests. While dozens of human rights activists are banned from traveling outside of the country, there have been many cases where GONGO staff enjoy the freedom to travel abroad and attend international conferences, in some cases, as police informers in disguise. Security officers are also said to put in a great deal of effort to cause splits between registered NGOs and independent ones. For example, human rights activists are often blocked from attending events held by registered NGOs.
d. Harassment of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)
There are hundreds of bloggers (including Facebook users) and HRDs who frequently write about political and human rights issues in Vietnam. Since the most recent Party Congress early 2016, the Vietnamese government has arrested 59 activists, almost half of the total number of the current prisoners of conscience in detention. The fact that the arrested vary from human rights lawyers to anti-corruption students, from land-lost farmers to labor rights activists, from environmentalists to unregistered religious groups’ followers proves that the government is systematically applying a zero tolerance policy towards dissent.
In addition, travel ban is one of the tactics used by the authorities to further isolate Vietnamese activists from the regional and international civil society communities. Statistically, over 100 human rights defenders, including bloggers, are banned from traveling outside and within Vietnam. Human rights defenders travelling abroad have had their passports confiscated by police upon their return to Vietnam and many of them are placed on a blacklist forbidding them to travel again. As a result, these activists lose their chance to meaningfully participate in regional and international forums to raise public awareness of Vietnam’s human rights situation as well as to learn from fellow activists in the region.
1. Follow Germany’s lead by actively engaging with and calling on the authorities, particularly the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), to lift the travel ban against all HRDs, and refrain from imposing restrictions on their right to freedom of movement in the future.
2. Raise the cases of the following imprisoned human rights defenders and offer them asylum in the US even if some of them may not take up the offer:
• Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, ICT entrepreneur and blogger, sentenced to sixteen years under Article 79 in January 2010.
• Faith-based Bia Son group sentenced to ten to seventeen years (for followers) and life imprisonment (for the leader) under Article 79 in February 2012.
• Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy sentenced to three years for ‘anti-state propaganda’ postings on Facebook under Article 88.
• Nguyen Huu Vinh (aka Anh Ba Sam), blogger, sentenced to five years for blogging.
• Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha, sentenced to 15 years and 9 years imprisonment respectively after being found guilty under Article 79 on 5 April 2018.
• Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (aka Mother Mushroom), blogger, convicted under Article 88 on 29 June 2017 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment leaving two young children behind without parental guidance and support.
• Hoang Duc Binh, environmental and labour rights activist, convicted of ‘resisting officers in the performance of their official duties’ under Article 257; and ‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State’ under Article 258 and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.
3. Call for the grant of access to visit prisoners of conscience and to do so periodically. This will send a strong message to the authorities that cases of concern are being monitored.
4. Call for the elimination and/or amendment of vaguely-worded articles in the Penal Code, such as Articles 258, 88, 79 and Article 19 – holding lawyers criminally responsible for not reporting clients to the authorities for a number of crimes.
5. The US Mission in Hanoi to organize seminars (such as one on the upcoming UPR of Vietnam in early 2019) and invite independent civil society organizations to participate. This will counter the authorities’ policy in using all means to deny unregistered CSOs the physical space needed for their meetings and to encourage and legitimize their work.
6. Consider designating Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended.
7. Use the Magnitsky Act as leverage for negotiation of the above.
What is it like to have nothing left to lose, truly? When the skin you walk around in, when your barely satiated and surviving body, is – literally – your only remaining home? And it is threatened – by uncertainties, indefinitions of belonging, by physical dangers and deprivations, and burdened, emotionally and psychically, in the not-always-visible ways that having one’s moorings torn away will do to one? The “stateless” refugees whose stories documentary filmmaker Duc Nguyen profiles in his latest project, Nothing Left To Lose, are all-too-often overlooked cases in the refugee crisis. Some have abided in this limbo state–of “statelessness”–for decades.
diaCRITICS: In a few words, can you tell us what your documentary Nothing Left To Lose is about? What inspired your journey to making this film?
Duc Nguyen: Nothing Left to Lose examines the things that one loses once being displaced in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It’s also about abandonment and love. The story is about a group of approximately 100 Vietnamese stateless refugees who have lived in hiding for 25 years in Thailand and finally get a chance to find home. It is told through the viewpoint of a physician who came to Canada as a refugee child. But her childhood was marred by her father’s physical and emotional abandonment of the family. We explore the internal as well as the external effects of displacement. What is it like to lose your home? This is the main theme that inspires most of my work. But this particular story is unique in a way that these people have lost everything including their own identities to hang on the hope of resettling in the West. How they survived and built their lives in a foreign land without a legal status for a quarter century was fascinating to me. The strength and endurance of living hopelessly for so long by these people was inspiring to say the least.
dC: Your film follows the stories of several “stateless” Vietnamese refugees, some of whom have been stuck in Thailand in this condition of “statelessness” for decades. For our readers who have not seen your film and are not familiar with such stories, can you tell us, in brief, what does it mean to be “stateless”? Are these stories unique (and are they unique to the Vietnamese exodus, in particular)? Is there a prevalent reason why or how this has occurred to some refugees?
Each refugee experience has a unique pathway that could determine that person’s fate.
DN: A stateless person is someone who is ‘not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law’. Some stateless persons are also refugees. However, not all refugees are stateless, and many persons who are stateless have never crossed an international border. Not to get geeky, but this is the definition of statelessness from Wikipedia. In this particular situation, the people featured in Nothing Left to Lose were asylum-seekers first, then became stateless after their refugee claims were rejected by United Nation High Commission for Refugees in the 1990s. Back then, to curb the flow of refugees from Southeast Asia, UNHCR implemented a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA). Any asylum-seekers who came to another country seeking asylum would go through rigorous screenings. If determined as a refugee, that person could be resettled in a third asylum country. If not, they must [be] returned to Vietnam. As the refugee camps were closing in Southeast Asia, the failed asylum-seekers were forced to “repatriate,” a softer term for “deportation,” back to Vietnam. This particular group of people chose to escape their refugee camp, and stayed in Thailand illegally. While their stories are unique to the Southeast Asian refugee experience, it is a piece of puzzle to the universal phenomenon of global migration and immigration happening today. I have made another documentary about another group of stateless Vietnamese in the Philippines called “Stateless.” They suffered the same fate. Failed as refugees, they decided to stay in the Philippines for 16 years before being accepted to the U.S. But the folks in Thailand are a bit different. For many of them, their ethnic identities were blurred, as some were mixed Vietnamese Cambodian or ethnic Chinese. And since Thailand is geographically bordered to Cambodia, some of them were regularly captured and deported to Cambodia. The stateless refugees in Thailand often falsified their identities as Cambodian so if deported they could have another chance to return to Thailand. So, border played a role here in their immigration pathway. Each refugee experience has a unique pathway that could determine that person’s fate. Timing is a also a big factor. But more importantly, compassion.
dC: Can you tell us a little about your process, your research, and your relationships with the “stateless” refugees whose stories you follow? How did you meet them? How long have you been working on documenting these stories?
DN: I started to discover the stateless Vietnamese in 2005 when I travelled to the Philippines to shoot my first documentary “Bolinao 52.” There I met with some of them and conducted interviews while they were being interviewed by the immigration officials from the U.S. for resettlement. I also got connected with Hoi Trinh, the human rights lawyer who lobbied for their resettlement. Later that year, about 2000 stateless Vietnamese in the Philippines resettled in the U.S. Some who didn’t get to come to the U.S. went to Canada and other countries. I followed several people in the U.S. as their lives progressed in the new country and eventually became U.S. citizens. That was the premise of my second documentary “Stateless.” Shortly after that, Hoi Trinh was asked to help a group of people in Thailand. At first, he reluctantly resisted. But over time, he decided to take on their cases. In 2012, we went to Canada and met with the Immigration Minister at the time, Jason Kenney. He had seen the positive outcomes from the folks that came from the Philippines. So the Canadian government created a discreet program to allow the folks from Thailand to come to Canada under the condition that the Vietnamese community would pick up the tabs. It means that each stateless person has to have sponsors who can financially cover the airfares, application fees, processing fees, and living expenses for one year after arrival. Plus, the community has to find housing, work, schooling and take care of the logistics for the stateless. Hoi Trinh then put on fundraising events all over the world and found necessary requirements to bring the long lost stateless from Thailand to Canada. Ironically, the stateless from the Philippines who resettled in the U.S., Norway and Canada gathered and footed the effort to raise necessary funds to bring their compatriots to the West. In Southern California, yearly they reunite in January to catch up with each other and plan the next deeds to repay back what they have been given, another chance to thrive.
The psychological effect of war is prevalent and penetrating for those who were in it and the people around them.
dC: What an amazing collective effort that must have been, and so much work and support entailed in setting “new” lives on course. What were some challenges for yourself in the making and/or distributing of this film?
DN: The biggest challenge in making films, this one or any that I’ve made, is finance. Making a film costs money, period. For this film, it was necessary to create a hybrid project which is a combination of commercial television series/personal documentary. We brought in a partner who was producing a health and lifestyle television series on local Vietnamese television channels. Hoi Trinh is a co-host on the show. So when we travelled to shoot on locations, Dr. Hannah Vu, our co-producer, also shot for her TV series and covered the expenses. We had virtually no financial supports from anyone except for a core group of supporters who have always been there. I invested my own money, in-kind services and time into building the film as we went along. We aimed to finish it in 2015 in time for the 40th anniversary of the end of the War. But we were short on funding. Then in 2016, I was contacted by a local PBS station in southern California. They were looking for Vietnamese-themed films to be part of a locally produced series to accompany the mega release of Ken Burns’ TV series “Vietnam War.” Of course, I pitched our project which was called “Freedom At Last” at the time. They liked it and said that they might provide some finishing funds. Months later, they came back and said there was no money but [they were] still interested. The program manager sent me a letter of interest. Then shortly after, she backtracked and said that in order for their station to represent this film, I would have to pay a representing fee. By that time, our core supporter, Center for Asian American Media came in with a finishing film fund, and our co-producer contributed some additional fund to complete the film in time for September 2017 release inline with Ken Burns’ series. The stations across the country needed to fill their airtime with Vietnamesque programming in Fall 2017 as PBS heavily promoted Ken Burns’ Vietnam War series. Nothing Left to Lose premiered in September 2017 and continued to air on various stations. That’s about making the film. For distribution, it’s a different story. I really didn’t think that Nothing Left to Lose would have a chance to be seen if it wasn’t for Ken Burns. Television programming is usually planned, strategized and scheduled ahead of time. Ken Burns’ series on the Vietnam War has been planned for years. It was a major television event for PBS and the local stations featured programs relating to the Vietnam War theme. Personal documentaries like Nothing Left to Lose, especially ethnic stories, don’t get the desirable exposure from the network. They often landed on the World Channel.
dC: What were some surprises or discoveries, any outcomes to celebrate, in the making and/or distributing of this film?
DN: Sometimes, the most compelling story happened right under your nose while you were busy chasing stories elsewhere. In our case, the emotional hook of the film belonged to one of the producers of the film, as it was narrated by and starred my co-producer Dr. Hannah Vu. When we began shooting in 2012 in Ottawa, Canada where she grew up, she mentioned that her father was still living there even though she had been transplanted to California for a while. That was all she said. I was curious as to why she didn’t visit her father on that trip. Not until much later in the production did she reveal about her estranged relationship with her father. Dr. Vu’s father was a South Vietnamese Navy officer who was in charge of a fleet around Saigon during the war. At the end of the war, they left Vietnam with the evacuation by the U.S. They resettled in Canada where they were sponsored. Dr. Vu grew up without the presence of a father. According to her, even though he was around, he never paid attention to his family, never took the family out on vacation, no dining out or playing with the children. In an interview, she quietly wept while explaining that as a kid, her father told her that she was no use for the family because she would not carry his name. Her children would never carry his name. As she became an adult, she wanted to prove him wrong. She studied hard to make a name for herself. But she had not spoken to him for over 20 years. But perhaps witnessing the hardships by the stateless in Thailand, she had more empathy toward her father who is living with dementia in a nursing home by himself. Dr. Vu has since changed her view of her father and is in the process to bring him to California where she is living.
What intrigued me about this story was how the Vietnam War affected people on so many levels. It left an indelible mark on those who fought in it and those in the peripheral ring. In the case of Dr. Vu’s father and many other South Vietnam veterans, losing the war was a major defeat for their pride. Those who were fortunate enough to resettle in the West focused so intensely on regaining their dignity through hard work. Sometimes they forgot about their family. The psychological effect of war is prevalent and penetrating for those who were in it and the people around them. In the process of making this film, I was able to gain a bit more understanding about conflict, abandonment, hope, love and loss in the context of war casualties.
The current name of the film, Nothing Left to Lose, is a derivation from the lyrics in Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee: “Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose.” When you are searching for freedom you may lose it all. So true.
dC: What would you most like viewers to take away or learn from seeing this film?
DN: There are two groups of people I would like to watch this film. One is the Vietnamese overseas community and the other is the general audience. For the first group of viewers which consists the diasporic Vietnamese community, I want them to get a deeper sense of understanding the role of the Vietnamese father. We often talked about “Mẹ Việt Nam” Vietnamese mom. But this film is dedicated to our fathers who have sacrificed much of their lives to give us what we have today. Many of them are quietly passing, taking with them their sorrow of losing the war. As I mentioned earlier, the story of Dr. Vu in the film and her father came as a surprise. However, her story of being estranged by her father was uncovered as healing process for herself and the film. I feel that the pain many of the men who served in the South Vietnamese military are carrying must be discussed in an open conversation instead of behind closed doors. Their stories should be told.
For the second group, the general audience, the ideas of home and nationality and citizenship are the forefront topics. As the immigration debate continues to rage on pop news circus, we need to look at the privilege of earning a citizenship of a country, any country. The basic human rights like travel, earning a living, education or ownership are determined by a document you have on you is preposterous. Being undocumented means being stripped of all rights. Especially at a time when the undocumented and the ex-felons are being hunted and deported back to their countries, being stateless, illegal or undocumented is being dehumanized all over again.
~Watch a trailer of Nothing Left To Lose here:
Nothing Left To Lose Website: http://nothingleft2lose.com
[Editor: Dao Strom]
Source from diaCRITICS
VOICE delegation at the UN office in Geneva. From left to right: Anna Nguyen, Le Thi Minh Ha, and Dinh Thao. Source: VietnamUPR Facebook page
Haiy Le, October 9, 2017: When the human rights group, Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE), sent a delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014, the delegation was made up of three men and all were citizens of Vietnam. This year, the trio is all female.
“We did not purposely want to have a female delegation,” said Anna Nguyen, Director of Programs at VOICE. A more interesting point, she explained, are the different backgrounds — and continents — the three women come from. Anna is a lawyer born and raised in Australia. Joining her is Le Thi Minh Ha, the wife of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh who was sentenced in March 2016 to five years in prison by the Vietnamese government for founding and operating a successful independent news blog. The third member is Dinh Thao, a Vietnamese citizen who left her career as a medical doctor to become an activist working out of VOICE’s headquarters in the Philippines and is now stationed in Belgium as the European Union Program Coordinator.
As activists waging a long war against Vietnam’s authoritarian government, they are unbothered by the comments littered on the VOICE Facebook page calling them “dogs” and “liars” who should “die.” The group suspects the comments come from hacks paid by the Vietnamese government. In the spirit of free expression though, the malicious comments are free to stay. It’s the opposite of what Hanoi is doing.
In 2017 alone, Vietnam’s one-party Communist government has detained or sentenced 16 activists under the country’s draconian penal code, and specifically Article 88, which makes it a crime to “propagate” against the government. Human Rights Watch has reported on the country’s long history limiting freedom of expression, which has sent more than 100 activists to prisons. The country’s repression has led to thousands of refugees seeking political freedoms and economic opportunities to live and work elsewhere under more democratic and transparent governance.
VOICE was founded in 1997 as a legal aid office in the Philippines to help stateless Vietnamese refugees resettle in countries, including Australia, the U.S. and Canada. Since then, the nonprofit’s mission has branched out to include advocacy for human rights and the rule of law in Vietnam.
Anna’s career has evolved somewhat similarly. She began her career as a refugee lawyer in Australia where for three years she worked with asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. “That’s when I started to learn about the human rights situation in Vietnam. Instead of helping people leave the country, I wanted to explore why people were leaving in the first place. The war ended in 1975 but why are people still leaving?”
Since joining VOICE in 2014, Anna’s work includes communicating with foreign governments and multilateral organizations, and persuading them to use their influence to put pressure on Vietnam. She also makes sure these foreign bodies hear from independent activists and civil society groups in Vietnam. “Many of these activists are banned from traveling and don’t have a platform, so it’s great that we can give them a voice,” she said.
In 2014, a 23-member delegation from Hanoi met with the U.N. Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a review process on the human rights records of all UN Member States. The Vietnamese government agreed to the implementation of some UPR recommendations and rejected others, notably the release of prisoners and the revision of vague national security laws that are used to suppress human rights.
The goals of this year’s Mid-term UPR Advocacy Campaign are to follow up on the recommendations and to advocate for the prisoners, particularly Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, a technology entrepreneur and blogger who was sentenced to 16 years for “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” on January 2010; Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, better known by her pen name, Mother Mushroom, is a blogger convicted of “anti state propaganda” on June 2017 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment; and Tran Thi Nga, a blogger sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment on July 2017 for “anti state propaganda” in her sharing of articles and videos highlighting abuses tied to environmental crises and political corruption. In the past couple of months, there has been a rise in the number of female activists targeted by the government. Mother Mushroom wrote that she was motivated to create a better future for her two children.
The mid-term campaign, which runs from September 15 through October 10, has been in the planning stages since the last UPR. The delegation has organized a marathon of meetings with foreign bodies in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the Czech Republic to give suggestions on how these groups can exert pressure on Hanoi.
In a recent case that has made headlines for its Cold War style of abductions, a Vietnamese asylum seeker was snatched off the streets of Berlin in broad daylight on August 24 — one day before his asylum hearing — and whisked back to Vietnam on corruption charges. In a meeting with Germany’s Office of Foreign Affairs on September 15, VOICE raised concerns to Annette Knobloch, Deputy Head of Unit of South East Asia/Pacific.
“We made them a number of suggestions and then a few days after our meeting, it was announced in the news that Germany had expelled another diplomat,” Anna said.
As Vietnam’s biggest trading partner in the EU, Germany has influential leverage through its purse strings. There’s also Germany’s development aid to Vietnam, which in 2015 was $257 million distributed over two years.
On top of the meetings with Germany and other foreign governments, the delegates have communicated with UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defender, Michel Forst, and CIVICUS, a group working to strengthen civil society. VOICE’s collaboration with CIVICUS, which has consultative status with the UN, gave VOICE the opportunity to present in front of the UN Human Rights Council on September 19.
“We call on the Vietnamese government to implement in good faith the UPR recommendations it accepted in 2014,” Thao read in her statement. “We call on the UN Member States to urge Vietnam to free all prisoners of conscience.”
Thao said the presentation alone has made the 25-day campaign a successful one for her, in spite of the stressful logistics, the back-to-back meetings and the harassment from the Vietnamese government that she, her colleagues and family in Vietnam have received due to her activism.
After the campaign ends, the delegates plan to follow up on the meetings and maintain the contacts they met. “It’s really easy to meet people but if there’s nothing done after that, there’s no point in meeting them,” Anna acknowledged. They will also start making plans for the 3rd UPR in January 2019, which will involve more people, workshops and a UN session dedicated to addressing Vietnam’s human rights situation.
Being a human rights defender is like running in a marathon, Anna described. “You cannot expect to see the finish line straight away. It’s hard and arduous, and you will need to eventually pass on the baton to your comrades and colleagues. But like all marathons, you will eventually see the finish line.”
Haiy Le is a freelance journalist and previously worked at the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsela. She grew up listening to her father’s stories from the the Vietnam War and became more interested in Vietnamese foreign affairs while studying International Relations and Communication at Stanford University. Follow her @HaiyLe
On 10 October 2016, Vietnamese authorities arrested blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known by her pen name Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), on charges of spreading propaganda against the State. On 29 June, Me Nam was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Known since 2006 for her active social media advocacy against the Vietnamese government’s rampant corruption, human rights abuses, and foreign policy, her arrest and later sentence should be seen as politically motivated. Civil Rights Defenders calls on the government of Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh and to end its wider persecution of bloggers and journalists under Article 88 of the Penal Code.
On the morning of 10 October 2016, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Me Nam) was arrested while on her way to visit another rights defender in prison. Her arrest and ongoing detention should be seen as nothing more than persecution against her courageous defence of human rights.
Since 2006, Me Nam has been blogging about human rights abuses and corruption in Vietnam. In 2013, she co-founded the independent Vietnamese Bloggers Network, which is now blocked in Vietnam. She has investigated and published widely on environmental protection, public health, correctional reform and anti-torture efforts, and has been critical of Vietnam’s foreign policy toward China over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Me Nam has posted information about over 30 people who have died in police custody and has been active both online and offline in documenting and demanding redress for the 2016 Formosa environmental disaster, when the Taiwanese-Vietnamese Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation leaked toxic waste into the ocean having a devastating impact on tens of thousands of Vietnamese in four coastal provinces. Because of her tireless defence of human rights, Me Nam has been frequently targeted for harassment by the state, previously detained, interrogated, and beaten.
Following her arrest on 10 October 2016, Me Nam was held in incommunicado pre-trial detention until 20 June 2017, when she was first allowed to meet with one of her lawyers. The government also targeted her family in the month preceding her trial, the worst on 20 May 2017 when over 50 security officials surrounded the family’s house.
On 29 June 2017, following a speedy trial that failed to meet international fair trial standards, the People’s Court of Khanh Hoa province sentenced Me Nam to 10 years in prison under Article 88 of the Penal Code, for “conducting propaganda against the state.” The outrageousness of the sentence is compounded by serious grounds for concern over her deteriorating health.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a State Party, holds that anyone arrested or detained is entitled to a prompt trial without unreasonable delays and discourages pre-trial detention. Anyone who is arrested or detained is entitled to a lawyer of their choosing and to a court proceeding to decide without delay the lawfulness of their detention. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the ICCPR, holds that incommunicado detention denies the right to a fair trial, and raises the risks of torture. In April 2017, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Me Nam’s detention to be arbitrary and called for her release. Instead, Vietnam proceeded with its persecution of Me Nam under the Penal Code. In contravention of Vietnam’s obligations under international law, Article 88 is often used to silence and imprison peaceful government critics and human rights defenders for exercising their right to the freedom of expression and opinion.
On the one-year anniversary of her arbitrary arrest and detention, Civil Rights Defenders urges the government of Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release Me Nam, and to immediately end its wider persecution of bloggers and journalists under Article 88 of the Penal Code. As a prisoner of conscience, Me Nam has the right to remedy, including necessary medical attention, which Vietnam should ensure without conditions. Vietnam should amend or abolish those sections of the Penal Code that do not comply with its obligations under international law. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s donors, trade partners, and especially those seeking to expand relations with Vietnam, should likewise pressure the government to release Me Nam and all others arbitrarily detained for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.
Months of police action against Vietnamese dissidents has led to at least 12 people being locked up across the country. The crackdown comes ahead of a regional summit in Da Nang in November set to include leaders from throughout the Pacific region.
Hanoi (dpa) – Nguyen Viet Hung is unsure how to help his son. Police reportedly arrested Nguyen Viet Dung, 31, in his northern Vietnamese hometown on September 27 at lunchtime. Since then, neither his family nor a lawyer have been able to see him.
He was accused of “propagating” against the state, a charge that carries up to 20 years in prison.
“Dung has followed his way, so sooner or later he would have been arrested. When he was arrested, I was not surprised or shocked but I was very angry,” Hung said in a phone interview from his home in Nghe An province.
Dung’s story is not unique. At least 12 political dissidents have been arrested, charged or convicted of anti-state crimes since June in one of Vietnam’s most intense crackdowns on dissent in years.
Another dissident, who had been a dual French-Vietnamese national, had his citizenship revoked and was deported to Paris.
Vietnam, which is ruled by a single party communist state, bans dissent, criminalizes opposition parties and imprisons pro-democracy activists.
Pham Doan Trang, a former journalist for Vietnam’s state-controlled press who is now a rights activist, said the situation for the dissident movement appears bleak.
“The security forces will not stop and they won’t refrain from violence either. So these years will be very dark for Vietnam,” she said.
Anti-government activists, who primarily spread their messages via social media, take on causes ranging from environmentalism to Vietnamese sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea.
“It appears that the Vietnam government feels threatened by more concerted and organized campaigns … and the increasing influence of internet communications that enable people to organize in new ways,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Dung established an unrecognized Republican Party and a group called the Loyalist Association of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, both references to the old US-allied Saigon regime that the communists defeated in the Vietnam War.
He posted pictures of himself dressed in military uniforms alongside the old South Vietnamese flag, a symbol considered taboo in modern Vietnam.
Dung’s father described him as a man who was active in his community by helping those in need.
“He assisted people to build schools and roads, and helped families who were having difficulties, but the government thinks he incited people,” his father said.
Dung’s father added that villagers have kept their mouths shut since the arrest to “avoid trouble.”
Quang A, a retired economist and businessman who is now one of Vietnam’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, says depending on what you show support for, you can be targeted for dissent.
“If you raise your voice to support the old system, then maybe they see that you are more dangerous than the others,” said Quang A.
Other political prisoners, such as Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known by her pen name Mother Mushroom, were arrested for their criticism of the Communist Party in the Vietnamese blogosphere.
According to Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales and a Vietnam expert, the government could be initiating crackdowns in anticipation of November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the coastal city of Da Nang. The meeting is set to include leaders from throughout the Pacific region as well as US President Donald Trump.
With all eyes focused on Vietnam, the government wants to ensure that activists do not use the occasion to draw attention to their causes.
“The timing of the arrests and trials indicates the [government] is taking pre-emptive action far in advance of the APEC summit to intimidate other would-be activists from making public protests on the internet or in street demonstrations,” Thayer said.
He also pointed out that activists tried to use the 2006 APEC conference in Hanoi to gain attention from world leaders and media.
Quang A says that while the current government’s crackdown has been dramatic, it has not deterred committed activists from carrying on their work.
“If you are to become a member for the struggle, for democracy, or human rights, you have to face all the consequences, and I think for those activists who have been detained, they aren’t scared of anything,” he said.
“Sure, with such tough measures, they can incite some fear in people, but you see that is a temporary sentiment,” he added.
Former journalist Pham Doan Trang believes “there will be light at the end of the tunnel” for Vietnam, despite the current rights challenges affecting the country for the foreseeable future.
“It’s just a matter of time, and we must try to live to tell the tale,” she said.
At least 11 activists have been arrested, charged or convicted over the past few months, while another was stripped of his citizenship and deported to France
Ho Thi Chau, 25, was left alone and blacklisted after her husband was returned to jail for “attempting to overthrow the [Vietnamese] government” last week.
An activist from the north central province of Nghe An, Nguyen Van Oai was arrested on 18 September on charges of violating the conditions of his 2015 release from prison.
Oai, an anti-government dissident, is a citizen journalist and co-founder of the Association of Catholic Former Prisoners of Conscience.
Following his conviction, he will serve a five-year prison sentence plus four years of house arrest.
Chau, a former garment factory worker, does not know how to support their newborn daughter. As she is the wife of a man branded a “reactionary” by Vietnam’s single party communist state, employers are reluctant to hire her.
“When we were preparing for our wedding I was sacked because of our engagement and they didn’t hire me any more,” she said.
Vietnam’s summer has been particularly harsh for dissidents, with at least 11 having been arrested, charged or convicted, while another was stripped of his citizenship and deported to France.
Human Rights Watch has described it as an “all-out effort” to clamp down on criticism, while Amnesty International has expressed fears that imprisoned dissidents are being tortured. The US embassy and EU delegation in Hanoi have repeatedly expressed their alarm.
Those who remain out of prison ponder if they will be the next detained.
Mai Khoi, a former pop star who was banished from the Vietnamese music industry when she began expressing pro-democracy views in 2016, was surprised on 22 July when dozens of police arrived at her private show in Hanoi’s Tay Ho district.
The authorities had a complaint: the studio hosting Khoi did not have a permit for the show and it must be stopped.
While no one was arrested, Khoi, whose band Mai Khoi and the Dissidents have lyrics peppered with criticisms of the government, was evicted the next day by her landlord, who told her he was breaking the lease due to police pressure.
Since the raid Khoi has been forced to stop playing her shows, which fuse traditional Vietnamese music with American-style blues.
She is now living in a secret location in Hanoi in a flat leased under a friend’s name as she tries to work out her next move.
“It doesn’t really scare me, because I have my way of living in a difficult situation,” said Khoi.
“Ai Weiwei was in jail and he’s still doing his thing,” she added, referring to the Chinese visual artist turned dissident who spent 81 days in jail in 2011 for alleged economic crimes.
While Khoi remains free, members of the Brotherhood for Democracy, a loose association of anti-government activists that exists primarily in cyberspace, have born the brunt of the crackdown.
Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh said she was with her husband, Truong Minh Duc, when he was abruptly snatched off the street the morning of 30 July. He is accused of being a member of the Brotherhood, though his wife said she has no knowledge of his participation.
While driving to a pharmacy to buy heart medication, Duc, vice-president of the unregistered Free Viet Labour Federation – which advocates for workers’ rights in the absence of independent unions in Vietnam – was pulled over along with Thanh.
He was thrown into a car and transported to Hanoi, where he is being detained on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. Thanh denies her husband is guilty, adding he merely criticised government policy.
“He was just helping workers who were experiencing unjust behaviour,” she said, adding she worried that Duc, who has a history of heart attacks, won’t survive his incarceration.
Three other activists who were arrested separately across the country on the same day also received the same charge along with human rights lawyer and Brotherhood for Democracy founder Nguyen Van Dai, who has been in prison since 2015 awaiting trial, and his colleague Le Thu Ha.
If found guilty they could face the death penalty.
“We prepare inside our minds for arrest, and talk to our family members, and I ask for advice from former prisoners of conscience about the life inside the prison,” said Nguyen Tuong Thuy, the 65-year-old vice-chairman of the Independent Journalist Association and a Brotherhood member.
Nguyen Thuy Hanh, a 54-year-old member who works as a public relations manger for an Indian company, said most of the group’s key functionaries were arrested in July.
“It’s the biggest challenge we’ve had since the birth of the Brotherhood for Democracy in 2013 until now,” she said.
While the Brotherhood for Democracy has no formal membership roll, it boasts almost 37,000 followers on Facebook. Causes represented by its members range from environmental activism to anti-China nationalism.
But while the Brotherhood has been hit the hardest by the crackdown, targets have included activists from across the spectrum of Vietnamese dissidence.
Some, such as Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the activist also known as Mother Mushroom who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in June, were prominent bloggers, while others, including Oai, were members of the Viet Tan, a banned self-described political party based in California.
Khoi, who avoids formal associations and public concerts, said the police will have a hard time building a legal case against her.
She added, however, that it would not take much for her to be imprisoned.
“If I want to be in jail for two days or three days, I’d just go into the street and sing my songs,” she said.
By YON GOICOECHEA
CARACAS, Venezuela — I write this from my cell in the dungeons of the Venezuelan secret police. I’m 32 and I’ve been a democratic activist for 12 years. I have two children, 8 and 5, who are my sun and moon. I have a wife whom I love and who now has to carry the burden of being married to a political prisoner.
One year ago, while I was going to speak at a news conference on behalf of the Popular Will political party, of which I am a member, I was intercepted by 10 or 15 undercover secret police vehicles. A couple of dozen armed agents tied my hands and covered my head with a black cloth. They transported me to the prison from which I now write, where I was locked in a cell without light or natural ventilation.
When I stretched my arms, I could touch two opposite walls. The door was blocked with black garbage bags, leaving the room in total darkness. There was rotten, worm-infested food on the floor alongside scraps of clothing covered in feces. It felt as if I had been buried alive.
I was denied any communication with the outside world and could speak with my lawyers only when I was taken to court. After 10 days, I was transferred to an administrative office inside the jail, where for the next seven months I slept on a mat on the floor. I have finally been moved to a cell with a bed, though one with no windows. I can see the sun only one hour a week.
Scarcely five years ago, I was studying for a master’s degree at Columbia University. Back then, I strolled with my family through the Morningside Heights neighborhood in Manhattan and hoped that one day I would use everything I had learned to rebuild my country.
But for me, as for so many other Venezuelans, political imprisonment has been the punishment for daring to dream of a democratic society, free of Communism and open to the global community. We just want what so many other people around the world take for granted: free elections, good governance, free expression, judicial independence, personal security and a modicum of economic liberty — something not even the Chinese Communist Party denies its citizens anymore.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way; the other 1,048 political prisoners and most Venezuelans share my dream. But an armed minority has managed to impose a regime of fear, corruption and blood. My case is evidence of that.
Last October, a court granted me parole — but my jailers ignored that order. Three months ago, the prosecutor in my case closed the investigation, establishing that I was not guilty of any crimes (I had faced trumped-up charges of possession of explosives). This means that there are no active judicial proceedings against me — I’m simply being held hostage in violation of the Constitution. The United Nations, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all described my detention as arbitrary and called for my release.
But I know I’m here for a just cause. My sacrifice and that of others like me will change millions of lives. Today, 93 percent of Venezuelans cannot afford food. Because of food shortages that are the fault of our corrupt and brutal government, nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans say they have lost on average about 17 pounds in the past year. A health minister was fired for releasing his department’s annual report, revealing that infant mortality has returned to 1950 levels.
I can’t imagine the despair of thousands of patients with cancer and other diseases who are in constant pain in hospitals that lack medicines. I don’t want to think of a father’s horror when his baby dies from a fever or diarrhea that could easily have been treated if he had access to medicine.
I’m in prison so that this stops happening. That conviction gives me strength.
My generation has made freedom its goal. I want to ask the people of the United States and the world to stand by our side. I ask the news media to report on what is being censored in Venezuela. I ask the nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups to keep denouncing abuses. And I ask investors to understand that no profits from doing business with a bankrupt government will surpass the benefits to come when Venezuela is once again operating in world markets.
We in the Venezuelan opposition have three main challenges right now. The first is overcoming the humanitarian crisis caused by shortages of food and medicine. The second is restoring democracy through peaceful means and avoiding civil war. The third is opening our economy to the world.
We aren’t asking anyone to solve our problems for us. We have taken responsibility for our country’s future. But Washington’s influence could either help us speed up the process or give some breathing room. The White House, together with the rest of the international community, has the capacity to pressure for negotiation and a peaceful transition to democracy. We are grateful for the support that the people of Europe, Latin and North America have shown; I only dare to ask for one more thing: resolve.
As for me, I’ll do everything in my power to keep resisting in prison. I’ll keep dreaming of going home to sleep in a clean bed surrounded by my family. I’ll keep dreaming of the day in which we all take to the streets to celebrate our freedom.
(Yon Goicoechea is a lawyer and political activist.)
From: The New York Times
Do Thi Mai, the mother of a 17-year-old boy who died after falling into a coma while in police custody, at home in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. “How did he turn out like this?” she asked. Credit Amanda Mustard for The New York Times
HANOI, Vietnam — Do Thi Mai said she was shocked to learn that her 17-year-old son, Do Dang Du, had fallen into a coma in prison a few weeks after he was arrested, accused by the police of stealing about $90.
The police initially said that Mr. Du’s severe head and leg wounds had been caused by falls in the bathroom, according to a family lawyer. “He was unconscious, so I couldn’t ask him,” Ms. Mai said.
Mr. Du died in the hospital a few days later, in October 2015, and members of his family told an interviewer that they believed he had been tortured in custody. The next month, two of their lawyers were assaulted outside the family home by what the lawyers said were eight masked men.
Nearly two years later, Ms. Mai is still searching for closure. “Two months before he died, he was healthy,” she said during an emotional interview at home on the rural fringe of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. “How did he turn out like this?”
Vietnam has been slowly updating its criminal justice system for years, under pressure from Western governments, and additional changes approved by the National Assembly in June are scheduled to take effect in January. But diplomats and rights groups have long suspected, based on interviews with former inmates and reports in Vietnam’s state-run news media, that prisons in the country have high rates of executions, forced labor and deaths in custody.
A recent government report on Vietnam’s prison system — which was posted on an official website a few months ago, possibly by accident, according to rights activists — appears to confirm many of the activists’ worst fears.
In one section, the report said 429 prisoners had been executed from August 2013 to June 2016, a rare admission from a one-party government that has long kept its execution process opaque. According to Amnesty International, that means Vietnam had the world’s third-highest execution rate over that period, after China and Iran.
Another section, referring to the period from 2011 to 2016, said 261,840 inmates had received vocational training, a term that rights activists say essentially means forced labor. In addition, the report said, the remains or ashes of 2,812 prisoners were approved for collection by family members, suggesting a high rate of deaths in custody for a prison population that the government says numbers less than 150,000.
The statistics “give us reason to doubt that governance is becoming less authoritarian and violent as Vietnam transitions to a market economy,” said Benjamin Swanton, a longtime social justice advocate and development consultant in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to emailed questions about conditions in Vietnamese prisons.
Many officials in Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party support changes to the criminal justice system, said Pip Nicholson, a professor at Melbourne Law School in Australia who specializes in Vietnamese law. But party officials who advocate for Western-style rules, such as truly independent courts or the presumption of innocence until proved guilty, she added, are in the minority.
The result, policy experts and rights advocates say, is a court system where arrests almost always lead to convictions and a prison system where human rights are an afterthought. Corruption, impunity and violence in prisons are mostly tolerated, these advocates say, because the system serves the party’s interests by silencing dissidents and enriching prison guards.
“It’s very easy to die there,” said Doan Trang, an independent journalist in Hanoi who has written extensively about state-led repression in the country.
The recent government report presented prison statistics as part of a long-term process of changes in line with global trends. It noted, for example, that the number of crimes punishable by death in Vietnam had fallen to 22 in 2009 from 45 in 1993.
The report also said, however, that the number of people on death row in Vietnam had climbed to 681 last year from 336 in 2011, and that the government planned to build five new execution centers to accommodate demand.
The global trend is a reduction in the use of the death penalty, said Janice Beanland, a campaigner at Amnesty International. “This is why it’s a bit shocking to us to learn that, in actual fact, Vietnam has been executing people more regularly than we believed,” she said.
The government report said that Vietnam had improved vocational education in prisons and that inmates received training in tasks like sewing, construction, carpentry, mechanics, farming and the processing of agricultural products.
But former prisoners and human rights groups say that such labor is usually not voluntary, and that the cashews, garments and other products are exported from prison workshops for a profit.
Doan Huy Chuong, a labor rights activist who was released in February after a seven-year prison term, said it was common for prisoners to rise at 6 a.m. and do manual labor, without pay, until anywhere from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Prisoners with money can bribe their way into hospitals if they fall ill, he said. “Without money, if they have a fever, they still have to work,” he added.
Rights advocates said they were especially worried about the government report’s claim that the remains and ashes of 2,812 prisoners were approved for collection by family members.
In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch said that prisoners who died in custody were often being held for minor infractions and that the official explanations for their deaths “strained credulity and gave the appearance of systematic cover-ups.” It quoted survivors as saying that police officers had sometimes beaten them to extract confessions for crimes that they denied committing.
“Do I think they start out with the idea of beating someone to death? No,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But do I think that there’s no accountability or controls in the system? Yes. And that’s the fundamental problem.”
In the case of Mr. Du, the teenager who died in custody in 2015, police investigators said for months afterward that his head injury — an inchwide gash — had been caused when his cellmate kicked him on the top of his head, not by a fall in the shower as they initially said, according to Le Luan, one of the family’s lawyers.
The cellmate, Vu Van Binh, was later sentenced to 10 years in jail for “deliberately inflicting injuries.” But Mr. Luan said in an interview that he believed the police explanation of Mr. Du’s death was littered with forensic inconsistencies.
For example, he said, citing an X-ray he provided to The New York Times, the wound was on Mr. Du’s forehead, not the top of his head. It was also hard to imagine, he said, how Mr. Du’s severe leg injuries could have been caused by falling onto a toilet in the bathroom, as the authorities claimed.
The causes that the police described “could not have created such serious wounds,” Mr. Luan said. “There must have been another incident.”
Members of Mr. Du’s extended family said in a separate interview that they were still not sure how he had died.
The only certainty, they said, is that something about the official explanation does not add up.
“He did something wrong,” Mr. Du’s grandfather Do Dinh Van said as he stood beside a makeshift altar that the family had created for the boy in their bare living room. “But he didn’t deserve to die.”