2018 Recommendations for US – Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue

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.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

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.

VOICE holds Vietnam accountable to human rights agreements on mid-term campaign

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

© 2017 The 88 Project

 

Amnesty International: Open letter on Prisoner of Conscience Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức

On the 8th anniversary of the arrest of POC Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức – and half way through his 16-year prison sentence – the Directors of 12 Amnesty International offices call for his immediate and unconditional release. The letter also calls on Viet Nam’s prison authorities to ensure that their treatment of Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức adheres strictly, as a minimum, to the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) so that he is treated with dignity and respect while he is incarcerated.

Ref: TG ASA 41/2017.002 Index: ASA 41.6234.2017
To Lam
Minister of Public Security
Ministry of Public Security

19 May 2017

Your Excellency

RE: OPEN LETTER ON TRẦN HUỲNH DUY THỨC

We are writing to draw your attention to the situation for Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, who is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence at Prison No 6 in Nghe An province.

Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, a successful entrepreneur and advocate for social and economic reform, has been imprisoned since 24 May 2009, when he was arrested on charges of “theft of telephone lines”. Authorities later initiated a criminal investigation under Article 88 of Viet Nam’s 1999 Penal Code for “conducting propaganda against the state,” but subsequently charged him with “attempting to overthrow the people’s administration” under Article 79. On 20 January 2010, Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức was tried, convicted and sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment with five years’ house arrest on release. His trial fell short of international standards for fair trial, disregarding the presumption of innocence and right to a defence. The prosecution provided no evidence to support the indictment. According to observers, the judges deliberated for only 15 minutes before returning with the judgment, which took 45 minutes to read, suggesting it had been prepared in advance of the hearing.

Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, held solely for peacefully exercising his human right to freedom of expression in his writing and his calls for peaceful social and economic reform. We therefore urge that he be immediately and unconditionally released, and his conviction quashed.

As Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức reaches the half-way point of his sentence, we are particularly concerned that he is held in conditions that do not meet international standards and that are negatively affecting his health and well-being. During the course of his imprisonment, he has been transferred several times, without prior notice to his family, who have to travel long distances to visit him. Rule 59 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules), adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in December 2015 and provides that “Prisoners shall be allocated, to the extent possible, to prisons close to their homes or their places of social rehabilitation.”

In his current location – Prison No. 6 – he is not provided with enough light in his cell when the electricity is switched off every morning so that he can read and write comfortably. Rule 14(a) of the Nelson Mandela Rules provides that “The windows shall be large enough to enable the prisoners to read or work by natural light and shall be so constructed that they can allow the entrance of fresh air whether or not there is artificial ventilation.” Rule 14(b) provides that “Artificial light shall be provided sufficient for the prisoners to read or work without injury to eyesight.” Yet prison officials have refused to either improve the situation themselves or allow his family to provide artificial lighting in the form of a small battery-run lamp. As a consequence, his eyesight is badly affected, a condition for which hehas received no examination or treatment in the prison. Other rights to which he should be entitled have also been denied by the prison authorities, such as the transmission of letters between him and his family and access to reading material, in breach of Rules 58(1) and 64 of the Nelson Mandela Rules, respectively. He has also been threatened with reprisals for speaking up for the human rights of other prisoners.

We call on Viet Nam’s prison authorities to ensure that their treatment of Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức adheres strictly, as a minimum, to the Nelson Mandela Rules so that he is treated with dignity and respect while he is incarcerated.

Finally, we urge once more that Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức and all other prisoners of conscience in Viet Nam are immediately and unconditionally released. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Viet Nam must respect and protect the human right to freedom of expression. By imprisoning people like Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, who has done nothing but express his opinions peacefully, Viet Nam is failing in its obligations under international human rights law.

Yours sincerely

Claire Mallinson
Director, Amnesty International Australia

Shamini Darshni
Director, Amnesty International Malaysia

Sylvie Brigot-Vilain
Director, Amnesty International France

Altantuya Batdorj
Director, Amnesty International Mongolia

Markus N. Beeko
Director, Amnesty International Germany

Grant Bayldon
Director, Amnesty International New Zealand

Mabel Au
Director, Amnesty International Hong Kong

Anna Lindenfors
Director, Amnesty International Sweden

Usman Hamid
Director, Amnesty International Indonesia

Hideki Walkbayashi
Director, Amnesty International Japan

Jose Noel Olano
Head of Office, Amnesty International Philippines

Piyanut Kotason
Director, Amnesty International Thailand

Kate Allen
Director, Amnesty International UK

Margaret Huang
Director, Amnesty International USA

Resource: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa41/6234/2017/en/