(New York) - The Vietnamese government should immediately drop all charges and free the prominent writer and democracy activist Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, Human Rights Watch said today. She is to be put on trial February 5, 2010, on assault charges after thugs attacked and beat her in front of her home, as undercover police looked on.
Tran Khai Thanh Thuy and Pham Thanh Nghien, who was sentenced to prison on January 29 on charges of disseminating anti-government propaganda, are both recipients of the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award, which honors writers who have been victims of political persecution.
"Courageous women such as Tran Khai Thanh Thuy and Pham Thanh Nghien face years behind bars rather than being able to contribute to the country's development," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "When will the Vietnamese government stop locking up peaceful activists who simply have different ideas and the courage to express them?"
In defense of the Vietnamese Communist Party's crackdown on dissent, the party's general secretary, Nong Duc Manh, said on February 2, "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."
The trials of the two women are the latest in a recent string of political trials of dissidents arrested during 2009. At least 17 dissidents have been sentenced to prison since October.
"None of these activists should be in prison," Adams said. "They are being targeted for their legitimate and peaceful activities as human rights defenders, democracy campaigners, dissident writers and political bloggers."
An established novelist and political essayist, Ms. Thuy, 50, 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.
Ms. Thuy, who suffered injuries to her head and neck, 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 October 19, she was moved to Hoa Lu prison in Hanoi. Since her arrest, her family has been denied contact with Ms. Thuy, who 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 (still available online at: http://trankhaithanhthuy.blogspot.com/).
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, for example, 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.
"Charging the victim of a beating with assault is yet another example of Vietnam's Kafkaesque efforts to silence government critics," Adams said. "The thugs who attacked her, the people who sent them, and the police officers who refused to intervene should all be brought to justice."
Ms. Nghien, 33, a writer and democracy campaigner, was sentenced by the Haiphong Court on January 29 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. As with Ms. Thuy, Ms. Nghien's family has not been allowed to visit her since her arrest in September 2008.
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.
Human Rights Watch called on Vietnamese authorities to guarantee the physical and psychological well-being of both women in prison, including providing needed medication and medical treatment and allowing for regular family visits. Human Rights Watch has documented systematic use of torture of political prisoners in Vietnam, including beatings, electric shock, confinement in solitary, dark cells, and prolonged shackling.
Human Rights Watch noted that the victims of the government's crackdown include established writers, journalists, businesspeople, and lawyers such as Le Cong Dinh, who was sentenced to prison last month on subversion charges. A long-time journalist for the state media, Ms. Thuy is a member of the Association of Hanoi Writers, the Club of Women Poets, the Club of Humoristic Journalists, and the Association of Vietnamese Journalists. She is also an honorary member of English PEN.
"Vietnam's intolerance for different opinions has recently reached a new low as the government tightens its grip in the run-up to next year's party congress," Adams said. "Unless Vietnam's donors make it clear that these abuses are completely unacceptable, the downward trend will only get worse."