Appeal Court Should Free Lawyer to Honor UN Rights Council Promises
People in Vietnam and around the world are scrutinizing Vietnam’s human rights record like never before, looking for the signs of improvement the government itself has promised. A truly independent court would overturn Le Quoc Quan’s conviction, restore his full rights to practice as a lawyer, and allow him to resume his work as one of Vietnam’s most determined human rights defenders.
(New York) – The Hanoi Appeal Court on February 18, 2014, should strike down the political conviction of human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan on trumped up charges of tax evasion, Human Rights Watch said today.
“People in Vietnam and around the world are scrutinizing Vietnam’s human rights record like never before, looking for the signs of improvement the government itself has promised,” said Brad Adams, Asia. “A truly independent court would overturn Le Quoc Quan’s conviction, restore his full rights to practice as a lawyer, and allow him to resume his work as one of Vietnam’s most determined human rights defenders.”
Le Quoc Quan was the founder of the Quan and Brothers law firm, which provided legal aid to factory workers and poor people. In 2006-2007, Le Quoc Quan spent five months in Washington, DC, as a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the US Congress. He did research on civil society in connection with his interest in an economic development path for Vietnam that would benefit the nation’s poorest.
He was first arrested in March 2007, four days after returning to Vietnam, for alleged subversion under the vague provisions of article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code. Following domestic and international outcry, the authorities released him in June 2007, but he remained under constant police surveillance. He was disbarred in 2007 for supposed activities to overthrow the government and his law office was shut. He continued to use his legal skills to comment critically on the persecution of dissidents, such as by publishing a defense brief on behalf of legal scholar Cu Huy Ha Vu before the 2011 trial in which Cu Huy Ha Vu was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for “propaganda against the state.” Le Quoc Quan also tried to provide pro-bono legal advice to participants in a politically independent online forum. On August 19, 2012, he was assaulted by two men, one of whom he recognized as a person who had been trailing him for months, and had to be treated in a hospital for his injuries.
Le Quoc Quan was arrested again on December 27, nine days after the BBC published his article criticizing the retention of Article 4 of Vietnam’s constitution, which makes the Communist Party preeminent in national political life. The piece, “Constitution or a contract for electricity and water service?” came at a time the authorities were soliciting public input on possible amendment’s to Vietnam’s constitution. Le Quoc Quan’s arrest was justified by trumped up charges of tax evasion, an allegation the Vietnamese authorities have used to prosecute other dissidents. Following domestic and international calls for him to be released, his trial was delayed but, in October 2013, the Hanoi People’s Court sentenced him to 30 months’ imprisonment, which he is serving in Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi.
Since February 2, 2014, he has been on a hunger strike to protest his conditions of detention.
In a decision made public in November 2013, the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Le Quoc Quan had been targeted for his work as an activist and as a blogger and called for his immediate release or for his conviction to be reviewed by an independent court. He applied for appeal immediately after his conviction, but the judiciary was slow to process his request. Finally, on January 22, 2014, the Hanoi Supreme People’s Court gave notice that its appellate division would hear his case on February 18.
At the February 5 consideration of Vietnam’s human rights performance under the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review procedure, Vietnam’s representative declared that ensuring protection of human rights in the country by building a “rule of law state” via judicial reform and modernization is a top government priority. He affirmed the right to a fair trial, including through an effective appeals process, and the necessity of the right to independent judges and the freedom of lawyers to actively and effectively defend their clients with equality of arms vis-à-vis state prosecutors. Several other governments speaking to the Human Rights Council Working Group on February 5 called on Vietnam to make this pledge a reality. The pledge was in response to the fact that Vietnam’s courts have, for decades, functioned as tools of the government and the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, particularly in cases with political and human rights implications.
The number of people sentenced in political trials has increased every year since 2010. During 2013, at least 63 people were imprisoned for peaceful political expression.
“Vietnam’s donors should make it clear that nothing less than overturning Le Quoc Quan’s conviction will satisfy Vietnam’s promises to the United Nations Human Rights Council,” said Adams. “Unconditionally releasing Le Quoc Quan would be a welcome step to show the government is sincere about ending the persecution of critics.”