(New York) - World leaders should continue to press Vietnam on human rights, religious freedom and political reforms when they meet in Hanoi this week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Vietnam’s economic progress has rightfully earned the praise of donors,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “But APEC delegates shouldn’t assume that those gains have translated into greater respect for human rights.”

Despite the high-profile release on Monday of a Vietnamese-American woman arrested for allegedly plotting to air anti-government radio broadcasts, Vietnam’s track record on basic human rights remains abysmal, Human Rights Watch said.

Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars in harsh conditions. Dissidents who use the internet to advocate greater human rights are jailed. Nguyen Vu Binh, 38, is serving a seven-year sentence largely in solitary confinement for espionage after submitting written testimony about human rights in Vietnam to the US Congress in 2002 and circulating articles critical of the Vietnamese government on the internet. Truong Quoc Huy, 25, was detained in 2005 for more than eight months after participating in internet discussions about democracy. He was re-arrested in an internet café on August 18, 2006. He had reportedly expressed public support for the democracy movement.

Vietnamese workers are forbidden from organizing unions that are independent of the government. In 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers initiated wildcat strikes to demand independent unions, the right to bargain collectively, wage increases, and better working conditions.

Vietnamese law also continues to ban publications that oppose the government, and lists more than 2,000 prohibited activities in the area of culture and information, such as revealing party secrets or circulating “harmful” information. Internet café owners are required to monitor their customers’ internet usage to make sure they do not access sites banned by the government. Demonstrations in front of places where government, party and international conferences are held are illegal.

“Free markets depend on free access to information,” said Richardson. “If APEC is aiming for equitable development and common standards, its delegates should be pushing for the maximum – not the minimum – freedom of information across all their members.”

Although they face state reprisals, activists are pushing ahead for reform in Vietnam. In the past six months, more than 2,000 people from different parts of the country have signed on to unprecedented public appeals calling for respect of basic human rights, a multiparty political system, and freedom of religion and political association. The government has responded with harassment; detaining, interrogating and confiscating documents and computers from many of the more prominent activists.

Despite the US lifting its designation of Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” for abuses of the right to religious freedom, Buddhist monks from the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, including its Supreme Patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, and second-ranking leader, Thich Quang Do, remained confined to their monasteries. Members of ethnic minority Christian churches in the northern and central highlands continue to be harassed and pressured to recant their faith.

Citizen complaint petitions and an internal government training document recently obtained by Human Rights Watch show how the Vietnamese government continues to treat certain religions with intense suspicion, as “hostile forces” that abuse religion to create political strife. The government document, entitled “Training Document: Concerning the Task of the Protestant Religion in the Northern Mountainous Region,” is available online in Vietnamese here, along with an unofficial English translation here.

The government training document, issued in 2006 by the government’s Central Bureau of Religious Affairs, instructs local cadre to limit and control the spread of Christianity among ethnic minority people in the north, calling on them to coerce forced recantations of religion by new converts who practice religion “irregularly” and whose faith is not yet “firmly established.” This policy is in violation of international human rights conventions that Vietnam has signed, as well as national legislation it enacted in 2004 in order to address religious freedom concerns by the United States.

Petitions recently smuggled out of Vietnam describe arbitrary arrests and ongoing persecution of ethnic minority Christians in the central highlands, as well as difficulties for churches to register with the government. The wife of a Christian pastor in Dak Nong province wrote that interrogation and arrest on suspicion of plotting a demonstration or supporting the unauthorized “Dega” religion can be sparked by communicating with friends abroad on a mobile phone, receiving money from family overseas, or taking a sick relative to Ho Chi Minh City for treatment. Police regularly use pressure tactics and physical violence, she wrote in a complaint petition to local authorities obtained by Human Rights Watch:

“As a matter of course, the investigating police beat individuals who they pick up and use the methods of their profession to wrap up the file as soon as possible: they play on the fears of their relatives, on their limited education, and inadequate knowledge of Vietnamese [language]. The investigating officers threaten, coax, make promises, and even write the confession for their relatives to sign or do the rough draft for the person to copy and then force him to sign. This happened to the wives of [two men], who were forced to sign confessions before their husbands were released.”

Human Rights Watch calls on APEC delegates to publicly raise these human rights violations with Vietnamese officials, and to press for amendments to the Labor and Criminal Codes to strengthen protections of freedom of expression, assembly and association. Human Rights Watch also urges APEC members to reiterate their expectations that Vietnam will abide by its commitments as it agreed to when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1982.

“Vietnam is on its best behavior while it’s under the international spotlight,” said Richardson. “But what will happen after the trade deals are signed and the APEC delegates go home? The world will be watching to see if Vietnam will demonstrate a new tolerance for dissent and criticism, or whether it will revert to business as usual.”