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(New York) - The Vietnamese government, emboldened by international recognition after joining the World Trade Organization and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, is flouting its international commitments on human rights by launching one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch sharply condemned the recent arrests of two outspoken human rights lawyers and a dissident Catholic priest.

"Vietnam has now taken its place on the world economic stage, but its human rights record lags far behind," said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government's ongoing criminalization of peaceful political dissent and violations of basic human rights threatens to undermine its economic achievements."

On March 6, police arrested Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan in Hanoi. Nguyen Van Dai, one of Vietnam's few practicing human rights lawyers, founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam in 2006. He recently received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers, which is administered by Human Rights Watch.

Le Thi Cong Nhan, also a lawyer, has served as spokesperson for the Dang Thang Tien Vietnam Party (Vietnam Progression Party), one of several opposition parties that have been created during the last year. She is known as a vocal champion of human rights.

Opposition parties, independent media and labor unions, as well as unsanctioned religious organizations are strictly banned by the one-party communist state.

On February 18, dozens of police in Hue raided the parish home of Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest and former prisoner of conscience. They confiscated computers, telephones and more than 200 kilograms of documents. The authorities moved him to a remote location, where he remains under house arrest.

Father Ly is one of the founders of "Block 8406," a democracy movement launched in April 2006 when hundreds of people throughout Vietnam signed public petitions calling for democracy and human rights.

Father Ly, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan have all been charged with carrying out propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, under article 88 of the Penal Code. If convicted, they face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

"These are all peaceful dissidents," said Richardson. "They have simply advocated for rights guaranteed both by Vietnam's Constitution and its international obligations under human rights treaties."

Nguyen Van Dai, Le Thi Cong Nhan and many other dissidents were confined to their homes last November, before and after Hanoi hosted the APEC summit. The two were detained and interrogated again on February 4.

In February, the authorities temporarily detained and questioned a number of other free speech activists and democracy advocates, including:

  • Catholic priests Chan Tin and Phan Van Loi, editors of the underground publication Tu Do Ngoan Luan (Freedom of Speech);
  • Vietnam Progression Party members Nguyen Phong, Nguyen Binh Thanh, and Hoang Thi Anh Dao;
  • Democracy activists Bach Ngoc Duong, Nguyen Phuong Anh and Pham Van Coi.

In Binh Thuan province, authorities reportedly detained and interrogated Buddhist monks belonging to the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, including Thich Thien Tam and Thich Hue Lam. Mennonite pastors Nguyen Hong Quang in Ho Chi Minh City and Nguyen Cong Chinh in Kontum, as well as members of independent Protestant churches in the northern and central highlands, also face ongoing pressure from the authorities.

On January 12, police arrested Tran Quoc Hien, spokesperson of an independent trade union, United Workers-Farmers Organization of Vietnam (UWFO), which was formed last year. He is currently detained at Phan Dang Luu prison in Ho Chi Minh City.

Last November, police arrested several other UWFO trade unionists as part of the APEC crackdown. Those arrested include Nguyen Tan Hoanh, Doan Van Dien, Doan Huy Chuong, Tran Thi Le Hong, Le Ba Triet, and Nguyen Tuan. They are among hundreds of political and religious prisoners in Vietnam, including cyber-dissident Nguyen Vu Binh, nine or more members of the Cao Dai religion, 10 Hoa Hao Buddhists, and more than 350 ethnic minority Christian "Montagnards" from the Central Highlands.

In a February 26 article announcing Father Ly's arrest, the Vietnamese Communist Party daily newspaper, Nhan Dan (The People) announced that the government had "smashed" the "extremists' sabotage scheme." The article also underscored the government's confidence following the APEC meeting:

"Vietnam's prestige has been lifted to new heights following the events of becoming an official member of the WTO, the successful organization of the 14th APEC Meeting and then the nomination by Asian countries to become a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in the 2008-2009 period ... the country [has a] bright future under the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam…[which] is striving to build a prosperous people, a strong country and an equitable, democratic and civilized society."

"Despite the official rhetoric, the Vietnamese government can't really pretend to be working towards a just and democratic society when it continues to persecute those who articulate different political views, who support multi-party democracy, or simply advocate for basic human rights," said Richardson.

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