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Testimony on the Human Rights Situation in Vietnam

House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight

Delivered by Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

We appreciate the opportunity to testify today before this Committee regarding the human rights situation in Vietnam. This last year has seen the harshest crackdown on peaceful dissent in Vietnam in twenty years. The government, emboldened by international recognition after joining the World Trade Organization in late 2006, moved to suppress all challenges to the authority of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) by arresting dozens of democracy and human rights activists, independent trade union leaders, underground publishers, and members of unsanctioned religious groups. Despite flouting its international human rights commitments, in October Vietnam was elected to a two-year term on the UN Security Council.  
Human Rights Issues in Vietnam  
Opposition parties, independent media and labor unions, and religious groups that operate outside of Vietnamese Communist Party control are banned. In 2007, authorities have increasingly suppressed activists, organizations, and political parties that surfaced in 2006 when the government temporarily eased restrictions prior to hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.  
Of nearly 40 dissidents arrested since the crackdown began in 2006, more than 20 have been sentenced to prison in 2007, many under Penal Code article 88, conducting anti-government propaganda. In March, Roman Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly, a founder of the Bloc 8406 democracy group, was sentenced to eight years in prison. Others sentenced in 2007 include human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, labor activist Tran Quoc Hien, and at least five opposition party members. Cyber dissident Truong Quoc Huy's trial is expected by year's end. Members of independent churches have also been imprisoned.  
Vietnamese law continues to authorize arbitrary detention without trial. While administrative detention decree 31/CP was repealed in 2007, a more repressive law Ordinance 44, authorizes placing people suspected of threatening national security under house arrest or in detention without trial in Social Protection Centers, rehabilitation camps or mental hospitals. Lawyer Bui Thi Kim Thanh, who assisted farmers with land rights complaints, was arrested in November 2006 and involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. She was released in July 2007.  
In addition to detaining or imprisoning individuals considered a political threat, the Vietnamese government uses other means to silence them. Dissidents' telephones are disconnected, their internet connections are terminated, and they are questioned and often detained if they go to internet cafés. Their homes are periodically searched and their computers and documents confiscated. Their families are pressured to stop them from speaking out. They are insulted in articles in the official state media, or denounced by "angry citizens" in orchestrated public meetings. They are dismissed from their jobs, or find their client base has dried up as a result of official pressure and negative publicity. Even family members face intimidation and reprisals.  
Prior to the US visit of Vietnamese President Triet in June, Vietnam released political prisoners Nguyen Vu Binh, who had served five years, and lawyer Le Quoc Quan, arrested in March 2007 and charged with attempting to overthrow the government after participating in a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. In October, eleven political and religious prisoners imprisoned on national security charges were released in a presidential amnesty. They included three members of the Cao Dai religion arrested in Cambodia in 2004 for trying to give a protest letter to officials attending an ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh along with seven Montagnards, at least three of whom were arrested trying to seek asylum in Cambodia.  
Labor Rights  
In 2007 the government raised the minimum monthly salary for workers in foreign companies for the first time in six years. Despite this, unprecedented numbers of workers-mostly at South Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Singaporean enterprises in Vietnam's southern industrial region-continued to strike for better pay and working conditions. The strikes were deemed illegal, as Vietnamese workers are not free to join or form unions of their choosing, and all unions must be approved by and affiliated with the Party-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.  
A new draft law would fine workers who participate in "illegal" strikes not approved by the Party-controlled union confederation. Other decrees enable local officials to force striking workers back to work, and ban strikes in strategic sectors, including power stations, railways, airports, post offices, and oil, gas, and forestry enterprises.  
Members of independent trade unions are arrested, harassed and intimidated, with at least six members of the United Worker-Farmers Organization arrested since 2006. Le Tri Tue of the Independent Workers' Union disappeared in May 2007 after applying for political asylum in Cambodia with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He was presumed to have been abducted and sent to prison in Vietnam.  
Free Expression  
All media is controlled by the government or the Party, with national security laws and "guidance" by the Party effectively insuring self-censorship over privately-owned media. Criminal penalties apply to publications, websites, and Internet users that disseminate information that opposes the government, threatens national security, or reveals state secrets.Investigative reporting is hampered by legislation calling for reporters to pay damages to persons injured by their reporting, even if the reporting is accurate.  
Foreign Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are prohibited from operating. Internet café owners are required to provide assistance and work space to public security officials monitoring the Internet, and to obtain customers' photo identification, which is supplied to Vietnamese ISPs. The ISPs are required to install monitoring software that identifies Internet users and their online activities, and store the information for a year. The government monitors email and online forums and blocks websites covering human rights, religious freedom, democracy groups, and independent media. Website owners are required to register and obtain government approval for website contents.  
In February, police detained and questioned Catholic priests Chan Tin and Phan Van Loi, editors of the underground newsletter Freedom of Speech. In April police arrested Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, an editor of the dissident bulletin Fatherland. In September the government ordered the closure of Intellasia, an Australian-owned business website in Hanoi, charging that it disseminated "reactionary" material.  
We note the irony of the fact that in 2007, Vietnam's national press prize went to the People's Army newspaper for articles "describing the insidious nature of hostile Western influences," a reference to the democracy movement.  
Freedom of Religion  
Vietnam's 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions affirms the right to freedom of religion. However, it requires that all religious groups register with the government in order to be legal, and bans any religious activity deemed to cause public disorder, harm national security, or "sow divisions."  
During 2007, the Minh Ly Sect in southern Vietnam, and the more pro-government part of the Mennonite church in Vietnam were granted legal registration. Other Mennonites in Vietnam, such as those affiliated with Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang in Ho Chi Minh City, a former prisoner of conscience, continued to be harassed.  
While most Catholics are able to practice their religion, those who advocate for political and civil rights-such as Catholic priests Phan Van Loi, Chan Tin, and Nguyen Huu Giai-are harassed and threatened with arrest. Monks from the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), including top leaders Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, remain largely confined to their pagodas. In March 2007, UBCV monk Thich Thien Mien, who formed an association of former political and religious prisoners following his release in 2005 after 26 years in prison, was interrogated by police for alleged anti-government activities. After Thich Quang Do spoke at the farmers' demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City in August, the government increased its harassment and surveillance of the UBCV.  
Four Hoa Hao Buddhists in Dong Thap province were sentenced to prison in 2007 on charges of causing "public disorder" after participating in a hunger strike to protest the imprisonment of other Hoa Hao members in 2005 and 2006. They joined at least ten other Hoa Hao leaders serving prison sentences and four under house arrest.  
In February 2007 several hundred ethnic Khmer (known as Kampuchea Krom) Buddhist monks in Soc Trang province peacefully demonstrated for religious freedom. Police dispersed the demonstration and arrested protest leaders, with five sentenced to prison in May for "causing public disorder." In June the Venerable Tim Sakhorn, a Kampuchea Krom monk from Cambodia, was imprisoned in Vietnam on charges of undermining national unity after being defrocked and deported by Cambodian authorities.  
Ethnic minority Christians belonging to independent house churches continued to be harassed, pressured to join government-authorized churches, and arrested. Despite regulations to streamline the registration process, many churches that try to legally register have been rejected or receive no response, with only 31 of 600 minority house churches in the northern highlands granted registration during the past two years. For many churches that have been approved, registration limits them to certain "specific activities," enabling government officials to use the registration process to monitor and control religious activities.  
An independent report facilitated by UNHCR in 2007 found "severe forms of religion-based punitive action" against Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands. During 2007, at least thirteen Montagnards were sentenced to prison, joining more than 350 Montagnards imprisoned since 2001 on national security charges for their affiliation with independent house churches, land rights protests in 2001 and 2004, or attempting to flee to Cambodia to seek asylum.  
In Phu Yen province, the government recognized-Evangelical Church of Vietnam reported that an Ede Christian died in April 2007 after being detained and beaten by police for not renouncing his religion. In July police and six trucks of soldiers forcibly evicted ethnic minority Stieng Christians from their farms in Binh Phuoc province, beating some of the villagers and bulldozing their crops and homes.  
A steady flow of Montagnard asylum seekers fled to Cambodia, with many forcibly turned back by Cambodian border police. Unfettered monitoring of the Central Highlands remained problematic. After a visit by officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to Dak Lak in June, police detained and beat a Montagnard who had helped translate for the delegation. This in turn spurred the flight of more asylum seekers from that village to Cambodia.  
Recommendations to Congress and the Administration  
We welcome the public statements and private demarches made by the State Department, White House and the Embassy in Hanoi condemning the crackdown on dissidents and calling for revision of article 88, under which many have been imprisoned, and President Bush's inclusion of human rights in his talks with President Triet during Triet's June White House visit. Much more needs to be done, however, to address Vietnam's blatant disregard for its international commitments to respect and uphold human rights, especially now that it has a seat on the Security Council.  
We urge the administration to speak up even more forcefully and work through private diplomatic channels at senior levels to unambiguously convey to the Vietnamese government that it must produce concrete and verifiable results in addressing the serious human rights violations we have outlined today. Congressional delegations and US diplomats should continue to visit dissidents and their families and travel to troubled regions of the country such as the northern and central highlands. We urge visiting delegations to make sure that they are well-briefed before making sensitive visits, to ensure that they do not engage in orchestrated visits to Potempkin villages used as propaganda by the Vietnamese government, and that those they meet with are not harshly punished afterwards.  
The courageous activists in Vietnam who have risked their liberty to make their nation more democratic need our support. The administration can most effectively convey this support by imposing tangible sanctions, benchmarks, and deadlines on the Vietnamese government to push it to take prompt and concrete steps to improve its human rights record.  
Important recommendations for Congress and the administration to press the Vietnamese government to act upon include:  

  • Immediately release or exonerate all people imprisoned, detained, or placed under house arrest, administrative detention, or involuntary commitment to mental hospitals for the peaceful expression of political or religious beliefs.  
  • Amend provisions in Vietnamese law that criminalize dissent and certain religious activities on the basis of imprecisely defined "national security" crimes to ensure that these laws cannot be applied against those who have exercised their basic rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religious belief. Topping the list should be repealing Ordinance 44, which authorizes administrative detention, house arrest, or detention in Social Protection Centers and psychiatric facilities for two year renewable periods, without trial, for individuals deemed to have violated national security laws.  
  • End the Vietnamese government's censorship and control over the domestic media, including the Internet and electronic communications, bring press laws into compliance with Article 19 of the ICCPR, and authorize the publication of independent, privately-run newspapers and magazines.  
  • Invite the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, and independent international human rights organizations to visit Vietnam to investigate human rights violations. International monitors and UN officials should be allowed confidential interviews and unrestricted access to all regions, including the central and northern highlands, and allowed to visit police stations, district and provincial jails, military-operated detention centers in the provinces and border areas, prisons such as Ba Sao prison in Ha Nam province where many political prisoners are currently held, as well as psychiatric facilities where dissidents are detained against their will.  
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all persons detained for peaceful activities to promote the rights of workers to freely associate, including the right to form and join trade unions of their own choice; to peacefully assemble to protect and advance their rights; and to exercise their right to freedom of expression on behalf of workers and their concerns. This includes persons detained or imprisoned for formation of independent trade unions in 2006 and 2007.  
  • Allow independent religious organizations to freely conduct religious activities and govern themselves. Recognize the legitimate status of churches and denominations that do not choose to join one of the officially-authorized religious organizations whose governing boards are under the control of the government. Allow these religious organizations to independently register with the government if they choose to do so.

If these steps are not vigorously undertaken by the Vietnamese government and there is no positive change, the US should at a minimum reconsider its annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam. If concrete action is not immediately taken by the Vietnamese government to address ongoing religious freedom violations and release religious figures from prison or house arrest for peaceful expression of their religious or political beliefs, the State Department should reinstate Vietnam on its list of "Countries of Particular Concern."

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