Human Rights Watch Testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
March 23, 2010

We appreciate the opportunity to testify before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission regarding the status of human rights defenders in Vietnam.

Today we would like to draw particular attention to the diverse and creative-but virtually invisible-rights defending community in Vietnam. These grassroots human rights watchdogs and reporters are on the frontlines of Vietnam's human rights movement-they go to protests; monitor abuses; videotape, record, and photograph human rights violations in real time-and then post the information on the web through various blogs. The Vietnamese government, increasingly wary in the lead-up to the Party Congress, has identified dissemination of information as the source of unrest and dissatisfaction and is responding by harassing and arresting bloggers and systematically targeting certain blogs and websites by not only firewalling them but hacking them. The United States must be more cognizant of these scores of grassroots human rights defenders-commonly lumped together as ‘bloggers'-and the Vietnamese government's attempts to silence and paralyze them.

In 2009, Vietnam intensified its suppression of dissent in an effort to bolster the authority of the Communist Party. Authorities arrested dozens of peaceful democracy advocates, independent religious activists, human rights defenders, and online critics, using vaguely-worded national security laws such as spreading "anti-government propaganda" or "abusing democratic freedoms." The courts convicted at least 20 political or religious prisoners, including five people sentenced in October whom the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had determined the previous month to be arbitrarily detained. People imprisoned in Vietnam for the exercise of fundamental rights number more than 400.

The government tightened its controls on internet use, blogging, and independent research, and banned dissemination and publication of content critical of the government. Religious freedom continued to deteriorate, with the government targeting religious leaders and their followers who advocated for civil rights, religious freedom, and equitable resolution of land disputes.

In a country like Vietnam, where the government bans independent human rights organizations and rejects visits by international human rights groups and UN human rights experts there is no human rights infrastructure beyond the networks that human rights defenders create among themselves. When these defenders' organizing activities are uncovered by the authorities, they are invariably considered a threat and many times, deemed illegal by the government. The government forbids the operation of free media, outlaws independent human rights organizations, and prevents the formation of trade unions outside the control of the government-directed Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL).

The Party is not shy in defending its repression of human rights to a domestic audience. The Communist Party of Vietnam's (CPV) general secretary, Nong Duc Manh, said on February 2, 2010, that "We struggle against all the ... hostile forces by preventing them from profiting from ... democracy, human rights, multi-partyism and pluralism to sabotage the Vietnamese revolution." However, in its May 2009 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government asserted that it has no "so-called prisoners of conscience," that no one is arrested for criticizing the government, but only for violating Vietnam's laws; and that its national security laws "conform to international law." The government rejected 45 recommendations from other governments at the UPR, including ones calling on Vietnam to allow individuals and groups to promote human rights.

The government treats the myriad advocates for greater openness, freedom, and reform as nothing less than challengers to the Party's authoritarian rule. The government continues to harshly suppress peaceful dissent, free speech, independent media, and unrestricted access to the internet, and does everything it can to silence its critics, often through sentencing them to long jail terms. Favorite tools used against human rights defenders are vague national security provisions of the criminal codes such as article 79 "opposing the people's administration," article 258, "abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state," and article 88, "conducting propaganda against the state."

Human rights defenders and dissidents in Vietnam are a diverse group-villagers protecting communal resources and land; lawyers representing politically sensitive clients; well-educated and computer-literate writers, artists, students, and intellectuals, often using blogs to press their cause; political activists peacefully exercising rights to association and assembly in an independent political party; communities of faith seeking to worship without state interference; workers organizing an independent trade union to help themselves and their fellow workers achieve a better life; and even former military or party officials challenging the status quo.

Unsurprisingly, the government's responses to the diverse range of rights defenders are equally diverse. They are harassed and intimidated by local officials or hired thugs. Some are dismissed from their jobs, or denounced and humiliated in orchestrated public meetings. Others are imprisoned or involuntarily committed to mental institutions, and some are tortured. One alarming new line of harassment of bloggers and other human rights defenders that has received relatively little attention: even after they are imprisoned, their family members are harassed and their freedom of movement restricted.

Legislative means are also employed to silence rights defenders. In addition to provisions in the penal code that criminalize freedom of expression and are often employed to threaten or imprison activists for defending human rights, the government is tightening up its restrictions on the internet and blogs. For example, new regulations limit bloggers' postings to personal content, and ban posting of articles about politics or issues the government considers state secrets, subversive, or threats to national security and social order. In 2009, the government called on internet service providers to block access to a number of websites, including Facebook and a website tracking developments at the besieged Bat Nha Buddhist monastery, in order to "protect the national security and to fight against the anti-Party and anti- state propaganda activities."

Other popular sites calling for democratic reforms and human rights are not simply firewalled by the government, but targeted for cyber-attacks. For example, Dien Dan X-Café, one of the most popular independent internet forums which discusses Vietnamese political and social issues, is now based in Europe after its Saigon-based moderators endured police harassment. The site has been cyber-attacked in the form of "DDOS" (denial-of-service attack), and information on a number of the forum administrators has been published on the internet with a malicious mixture of real and fake information. Lawyer Le Quoc Quan has promised to defend any member of X-Café in Vietnam who may get into troubles due to this exposure; it is possible that he in turn will be prosecuted for trying to defend the bloggers.

Human rights defenders for religious freedom

In Vietnam, where the government bans independent human rights organizations, church leaders are often the most prominent voices advocating for fundamental rights to free speech and religious freedom.

In some cases, church leaders who have emerged as civil rights campaigners are charged with national security crimes and sent to prison. This was the case with Father Nguyen Van Ly, who peacefully called for the government to show greater respect and tolerance for human rights, religious freedom, and democratic principles. Arrested in 2006 and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment, he was temporarily released last week because of severe health problems.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about less well known human rights defenders among Hmong Protestants in the northwest of Vietnam, Montagnards conducting prayer services in the central highlands, and Khmer Krom Buddhists in the Mekong River delta. In terms of high profile human rights defenders, we continue to closely monitor the cases of Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do, who has been confined without charges to his monastery for years under police surveillance, and Catholic priest Phan Van Loi, who has been similarly held under house arrest without charges. We also continue to track the cases of four Hoa Hao Buddhists, sentenced in 2007 to prison for protesting the imprisonment of other Hoa Hao Buddhists in 2006 in Dong Thap province, and of Cao Dai members who were sentenced in 2005 to up to 13 years in prison on national security charges after they tried to deliver a petition calling for religious freedom to delegates attending an international conference in Cambodia.

Here are some specific cases of human rights defenders that need the immediate attention of the Committee. Let me very pointedly stress that this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather is a composition of prominent individuals who are examples of the bloggers, political party activists, labor leaders, and practitioners of religious freedom being imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their rights.

Pham Thanh Ngien

Ms. Nghien, 33, a writer and democracy campaigner, is a recipient of the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award, given by Human Rights Watch to honor writers who have been victims of political persecution. She was sentenced by the Haiphong Court on January 29, 2010, to four years in prison followed by three years under house arrest on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda under article 88 of the penal code. In 2007, when the wool company where Ms. Nghien worked went bankrupt, she began doing advocacy work on behalf of landless farmers and writing articles calling for human rights and democracy. In July, 2007, authorities barred her from attending the trial of her close friend, the democracy campaigner Le Thi Cong Nhan. After that, Ms. Nghien was repeatedly harassed by the police, who regularly summoned her for aggressive questioning. In June 2008, Ms. Nghien was detained after signing a letter with fellow activists requesting authorization from the Public Security Ministry to organize a peaceful demonstration against China's claims to the Spratley and Paracel islands. A few days later, she was attacked and beaten by thugs, who threatened her life if she continued "hostile actions" against the state. In September 2008, she was arrested along with other democracy activists during a government crackdown that aimed to prevent planned anti-China protests at the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi.

Tran Khai Thanh Thuy

Another recipient of the Hellman/Hammett award, Tran Khai Thanh Thuy is an established novelist and political essayist, and an active political blogger. She was arrested the evening of October 8, 2009. Earlier that day, police stopped her from travelling to Hai Phong to attend the trials of fellow dissidents. They ordered her to return to her home in Hanoi, where that evening she and her husband were harassed and attacked by thugs. She suffered injuries to her head and neck and was arrested after the attack and detained at Dong Da police station in Hanoi on charges of "intentionally inflicting injury on or causing harm to the health of other persons" under article 104 of Vietnam's Penal Code. On February 5, 2010, she was sentenced to 42 months in prison. She suffers from diabetes and tuberculosis.

Ms. Thuy has played a key role in Vietnam's besieged democracy movement. In 2006, she started an association for victims of land confiscation (Hoi Dan Oan Viet Nam), helped found the Independent Workers' Union of Vietnam, and joined the editorial board of the pro-democracy bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland), which is printed clandestinely in Vietnam and circulated on the internet. Up until five weeks before her last arrest, she was also an active blogger. Since emerging as an activist in 2006, Ms. Thuy has been repeatedly denounced and humiliated in public meetings organized by the authorities, including a "People's Court" in 2006, at which police gathered 300 people in a public stadium to insult her. In November 2006 she was dismissed from her job as a journalist and placed under house arrest to bar her from meeting with international journalists and diplomats attending the Asian Pacific Cooperation Summit in Hanoi. In April 2007 she was arrested and held incommunicado for more than nine months at B-14 Detention Center in Hanoi. After her release in January 2008, she continued to encounter relentless harassment from police, local officials, and orchestrated neighborhood gangs.

During 2009, thugs attacked her house at least 14 times, throwing excrement and dead rodents at her gate. They also inserted metal into her front door lock on two occasions, locking her out of her own home. When she went to the police to file a complaint, they refused to take any action, even though neighbors reported that police were watching during some of the attacks on her home.

Le Cong Dinh

On June 13, 2009, police from the Ministry of Public Security's Investigation Security Agency arrested Dinh on national security charges and raided his Ho Chi Minh City law office. Police charged him under article 88 of Vietnam's criminal code, "conducting propaganda against the government," which carries a sentence of up to 20 years. In December, the authorities changed the charge to "attempts to overthrow the state," a capital crime, and on January 20, 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison for subversion.

Dinh, 41, is the former vice president of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association and a managing partner of DC Law, a prominent private law firm in Ho Chi Minh City. After studying law at Hanoi Law School and Saigon University, Dinh received a Fulbright scholarship to study at Tulane University in the United States, where he received a master of law degree in 2000. Dinh is best known for his defense of Vietnamese bloggers, human rights defenders, and democracy and labor rights activists such as Nguyen Van Dai, Le Chi Cong Nhan, and Nguyen Hong Hai (a.k.a. Dieu Cay). During his defense of democracy activists Dai and Nhan at their appeals court trial in 2007, Dinh said "Talking about democracy and human rights cannot be seen as anti-government unless the government itself is against democracy."

It is worth noting that the arrest of Le Cong Dinh came just days after President Nguyen Minh Triet addressed the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, on June 6, 2009, at their annual congress in Hanoi. In his speech, Triet affirmed Vietnam's respect and support for progressive lawyers and vowed to criticize those who "trample democracy and human rights."

Rev. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly

Rev. Ly, aged 63, was most recently sentenced to eight years in jail in 2007 for disseminating anti-government propaganda. An advocate of religious freedom, greater democracy, and human rights, he has been imprisoned for more than 15 years since 1977. Rev. Ly is an excellent example of the ‘cross-over' nature of Vietnam's human rights defenders, defending his faith but also serving as a principal architect of Bloc 8406, a group started with 118 petitioners calling for democratic elections and a multiparty state which was publicly released on April 8, 2006. During his trial in 2007, police placed their hands over his month to muzzle him when he confronted Vietnamese judicial officials and accused them of practicing the "law of the jungle." In 2009 he suffered two serious strokes in prison, causing paralysis on the right side of his body, and on March 16, 2010, was released into home detention in Hue for a period of twelve months to recover his health. However, the release is not a permanent one but rather a "temporary suspension of imprisonment execution," meaning the twelve months does not count against his sentence. In a little less than a year from now, Rev. Ly will be ordered back to prison to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Upon return to Vinh Ninh ward in Hue, the People's Committee instructed that Rev. Ly is strictly prohibited from making any anti-government actions or communications, and must receive advance permission to go outside the ward.

Tran Quoc Hien

A lawyer from Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Quoc Hien, 44, was arrested on January 12, 2007, just two days after he publicly emerged as spokesperson for the newly formed independent labor union, the United Farmer and Workers Organization (UWFO). As director of a law firm in Ho Chi Minh City, Hien was known for defending farmers whose land was confiscated by the government and for publishing articles online, such as "The Tail," in which he described life under government surveillance. Tran Quoc Hien was sentenced on May 15, 2007, by the Ho Chi Minh City People's Court to five years' imprisonment and two years' house arrest on release for "spreading anti-government propaganda" and "endangering state security." Authorities accused him of having "joined reactionary organizations" including Bloc 8406, inciting demonstrations, and posting "distorted" articles on the internet. He is currently imprisoned at Camp Z-30A in Xuan Loc District in Dong Nai Province, one of the main prisons in Vietnam for political prisoners. In February 2009, he joined a three-day hunger strike with other political prisoners to protest harsh conditions.

Nguyen Hoang Hai (a.k.a. Dieu Cay)

Dieu Cay (a nickname which means "the Peasant Water Pipe") is an activist known for his hard-hitting internet postings calling for greater democracy and human rights in Vietnam, and for his participation in protests in Vietnam against Chinese foreign policy, especially regarding Chinese claims to the dispute Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. A former soldier in the People's Army of Vietnam, he was one of the founding members of the Club of Free Journalists. He was a leader of a protest in front of the Opera House in Ho Chi Minh in January 2008 where activists unfurled banners denouncing Chinese claims to the islands, and prior to his arrest in April 2008, he was harshly interrogated more than 15 times by police. Dieu Cay was sentenced to 30 months in prison on September 10, 2008, on trumped-up tax evasion charges. Yet when he was arrested, the police unit responsible was the Internal Security and Counter-Espionage Departments of the Ministry of Public Security-primarily response for monitoring and intervening in political cases-and not the officials responsible for tax matters. Initially imprisoned in Chi Hoa prison in Ho Chi Minh City, he was transferred to Cai Tau prison in Ca Mau province in early 2009. Authorities have placed his wife under surveillance, prohibited her from attending the trials of other dissidents, forced her to submit to regular public criticism sessions, and harassed her son during his high school exams.

Others

It is alarmingly easy to add other less well-known cases to this list.

Bui Thanh Hieu, who blogs under the name of Nguoi Buon Gio, "Wind Merchant," was arrested on Aug 27, 2009, for posting blogs criticizing the government's policies towards China, controversial bauxite mines in the Central Highlands, and disputes with Catholics over church properties and then released on September 5, 2009. Hieu's house was searched and his laptop confiscated; on March 5, 2010, Hieu was summoned and questioned by the police for several days in a row.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who blogs under the name of Me Nam, "Mother of Mushroom," was arrested on September 2, 2009, for posting blogs criticizing Vietnam's policies towards China and disputed offshore islands, and released on September 12, 2009. Quynh has been pressured not to post blogs anymore, is continually followed by the police, and, most recently, his application for a passport was rejected.

Blogger Ta Phong Tan, a former policewoman, recently lost her job, and has been summoned and interrogated by the police. Her blog is blocked, she has been denounced in the official Ho Chi Minh City Police Newspaper and, as of March 8, her house was pad-locked by the police from the outside so she cannot get out.

Recommendations

How can the United States respond most effectively to the many and various forms of abuse to which Vietnamese human rights defenders are subject? We make the following six recommendations.

  • The US Congress should actively support human rights defenders in Vietnam in an approach that focuses not only on individual cases, but also addresses the underlying repressive measures-such as restrictions on freedom of association, assembly, peaceful expression, and conscience-that perpetuate the growing list of human rights defenders sentenced to jail.

o Members of the US Congress should ensure that all meetings with Vietnamese officials raise at least one case of a human rights defender or one human rights issue. Hearing from diverse members on diverse issues will demonstrate to the Vietnamese government this body's degree of concern.

o Members can also pressure the Obama administration to more closely link trade and aid relations with Vietnam to human rights concerns.

  • In particular, the US Congress should resist policy approaches that make arbitrary distinctions between people harassed or arrested for practice of their religious beliefs and human rights defenders. Doing so likely encourages the Vietnamese government to categorize defenders in ways the US is less likely to object to.

o Human Rights Watch believes that the CPC is a useful tool to apply pressure for respect for rights by the Vietnam government, but it should not be applied in a way that diminishes the importance of challenges faced by political activists and more secular human rights defenders.

o Human Rights Watch recommends-again-that the State Department re-designate Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) for religious freedom violations under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

  • The US Congress should strongly encourage the Obama Administration to press in all US-Vietnam dialogues-not just human rights dialogues-for clear statements and time-bound commitments from the Vietnamese government to end legal restrictions on freedom of expression, association, assembly, and other civil and political rights including in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Here, too, the involvement of diverse US government actors will make a difference.
  • The US Congress should press the Obama administration to work jointly with other donor countries to push for repeal of provisions of Vietnam's Criminal Code and other legislation that restrict and/or criminalize the right to peaceful dissent, particularly vague provisions on national security (see above). The Administration should stipulate that these actions be taken prior to any sort of assistance or joint training programs on legal reform.
  • Since an increasing number of human rights defenders are using the internet to spread their messages, and network both inside the country and with international organizations, the US Congress should press Vietnam to repeal its increasingly harsh restrictions on the internet, blogs, independent think tanks, and firewalls against popular human rights and democracy websites, and end all state sponsored or supported hacking of such websites. The Vietnamese authorities should immediately lift restrictions on use of Facebook and Yahoo 360, and eliminate or amend the following legal provisions limiting access to the internet:

o Ministry of Information and Communication Circular No. 7, which came into effect in January 2009 and restricts blog content to strictly personal information, prohibits blogs from re-distributing or transmitting "false" or "illegal" news content or opinions that criticize the government, undermine national unity, etc., and requires blog platform hosts to provide information about their clients to the government every six months, or upon demand.

o Decree 56/2006/ND-CP (2006), which prohibits using the internet to access or disseminate "harmful" information or "reactionary ideology" that opposes the government, threatens national security or social order, or reveals state secrets.

o Joint Circular No. 02/2005/TTLT-BCVT-¬VHTT-CA-KHDT of July 14, 2005, on management of internet agents, issued by the Ministry of Post and Telematics, the Ministry of Culture and Information, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Planning and Investment on July 14, 2005.

o Decision 71, issued by the MPS in 2004, which requires internet cafe owners to obtain and keep on file a copy of customers' photo identification, which is supplied to ISPs, before allowing customers internet access.

  • The US Congress should press Vietnam to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression as well as independent human rights groups such asReporters Sans Frontiers, Article 19, Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch to visit Vietnam to assess and make recommendations regarding the state of internet freedom in Vietnam.
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