Phan Thanh Hai (blogger Anhbasg) and Nguyen Van Hai (blogger Dieu Cay).

(New York) - Vietnam should immediately drop charges against the peaceful online critics Nguyen Van Hai, known as Dieu Cay, and Phan Thanh Hai, known as Anhbasg, and release them, Human Rights Watch said today. The government's politically motivated prosecutions of independent bloggers and critics of the government violates their rights guaranteed under international law and spotlights the country's poor human rights record, Human Rights Watch said.

On October 20, 2010, the day the blogger Dieu Cay's 30-month prison sentence on trumped-up "tax evasion" charges was to finish, police officials refused to release him. Police said he would be held pending investigation of a new charge that he had violated article 88 of the Penal Code by carrying out "propaganda against the Socialist Republic." His former wife, Duong Thi Tan, who was preparing to pick him up from the prison, was detained and interrogated by police in Ho Chi Minh City, and authorities searched her house.

"The Vietnam government is shameless in constructing charges and rationales to keep peaceful critics like Dieu Cay behind bars," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The pre-Party Congress crackdown is swinging into full gear and government critics are being targeted."  

Dieu Cay is the founder of an independent group called the Club of Free Journalists. The tax charges were widely viewed as a pretext to muzzle his criticism of the government and its policy toward China. On October 18, police in Ho Chi Minh City also arrested Phan Thanh Hai, another member of the group. Two other members, Ta Phong Tan and Uyen Vu, both bloggers, were placed under intrusive police surveillance at their homes. Police also briefly detained a democracy activist, Do Nam Hai, on October 19.

"In a country where the state controls all traditional media outlets, independent bloggers have emerged as important sources of news, information, and social commentary," Robertson said. "The government should embrace the key role that independent bloggers are playing in society instead of harassing and imprisoning them."

The repressive measures against bloggers have coincided with a recent wave of arbitrary arrests that appear to be part of an official effort to stifle critical voices in the months before the Vietnamese Communist Party Congress, in January 2011. Vietnam bans opposition political parties and independent media and requires all associations, religious groups and trade unions to come under government control.

On August 13, the police arrested Pham Minh Hoang, known by his pen name, Phan Kien Quoc, of Ho Chi Minh City Polytechnic University, who is a contributor to a website critical of Chinese-operated bauxite mines in Vietnam's Central Highlands. Police accused him of working with Viet Tan, an overseas opposition party, and attending meetings at which methods of nonviolent resistance were discussed. Others arrested for alleged involvement with Viet Tan in recent months include Duong Kim Khai, a Mennonite pastor arrested on August 10 in Ho Chi Minh City; and land-rights petitioners Tran Thi Thuy, arrested on August 10 in Dong Thap, and Nguyen Thanh Tam, arrested on July 18 in Ben Tre.

Three labor rights activists - Doan Huy Chuong, Do Thi Minh Hanh, and Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung - are scheduled for trial in Tra Vinh province on October 26, charged with "disrupting security." The three were arrested in February for distributing anti-government leaflets and helping workers to organize strikes for better pay. Also scheduled for trial next week are six villagers from Con Dau parish in Da Nang province who were arrested in May when police forcibly dispersed a funeral procession to a cemetery located on disputed land.

The 17th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which begins on October 28 in Hanoi, provides an excellent opportunity for ASEAN heads of state and other governments to raise concerns about the persecution of government critics, Human Rights Watch said.

"Participants to the ASEAN summit should ask their Vietnamese hosts what they think a ‘people-centered ASEAN' really means to a Vietnamese blogger in prison," Robertson said.  "ASEAN should insist that Vietnam immediately release these prisoners and respect the ASEAN Charter's human rights principles."