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(New York) - Vietnam should immediately release an outspoken legal scholar and end its crackdown on lawyers and activists challenging the government on human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Cu Huy Ha Vu, who has brought controversial legal complaints against the authorities, was arrested on November 5, 2010, and charged with conducting anti-government propaganda.

"Cu Huy Ha Vu's arrest is the Vietnamese government's latest salvo in its campaign of repression against independent lawyers and activists who defend human rights and challenge official misconduct," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Cu Huy Ha Vu joins a growing group of corruption-busting human rights lawyers and legal defenders including Le Cong Dinh, Nguyen Van Dai, Le Thi Cong Nhan, Le Tran Luat, Ta Phong Tan, Tran Quoc Hien, Le Quoc Quan, and Nguyen Bac Truyen who have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, disbarred, and pressured not to represent political or religious activists. In many cases, the government has pressed employers to dismiss them or landlords to evict them, and persecuted them in other ways.

Cu Huy Ha Vu, who has a doctorate in law, runs a law firm in Hanoi with his wife, Nguyen Thi Duong Ha, a lawyer. He has fought to protect environmental and cultural heritage sites since 2005, when he filed a lawsuit opposing the plan of the People's Committee of Thua Thien-Hue to build a tourist resort on Vong Canh hill in Hue.

He became nationally known in June 2009, when he filed a legal complaint against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for authorizing controversial bauxite mining in Vietnam's Central Highlands. The People's Court of Hanoi subsequently dismissed the suit.

In September 2010, Cu Huy Ha Vu filed a legal complaint against the prime minister for signing Decision No. 136, which forbids citizens from filing class action petitions and complaints with the government. On October 16, Cu Huy Ha Vu's law firm took on the defense of Catholics from Con Dau parish in Danang who were arrested in May after police forcibly dispersed a funeral procession to a cemetery located on disputed land. The People's Court of Cam Le district refused to grant permission for the law firm to represent the families.

The authorities arrested Cu Huy Ha Vu soon after he filed a follow-up lawsuit against the prime minister over Decision No. 136, on October 21.

Ho Chi Minh City police arrested Cu Huy Ha Vu on the morning of November 5, claiming to have found him in a hotel room with a woman who is not his wife. Online government newspapers immediately posted blurry images of a shirtless Cu Huy Ha Vu with a woman in a hotel room, but the photos were removed from some sites hours later. Police took him into custody, confiscated his laptop, and sent a team of officers with warrants to search his home and law office in Hanoi.

On November 6, the Public Security Ministry announced that it had charged Cu Huy Ha Vu with disseminating "propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" in violation of article 88 of the penal code. Along with other vaguely worded national security provisions in the penal code, such as article 79 on conducting activities to overthrow the government, article 88 is commonly used by the government in politically motivated cases.

Cu Huy Ha Vu is the latest in a long line of Vietnamese lawyers and activists arrested for challenging the government during the past five years. Several lawyers have been persecuted in other ways for bringing legal claims against official policies, representing clients in claims against the government, or defending people who have been arrested for nonviolent expression of their political and religious beliefs.

"Cu Huy Ha Vu's arrest seeks to deter lawyers from taking on politically sensitive cases, like defending democracy activists and victims of land confiscation, or bringing lawsuits to protect the environment," Robertson said. "Rather than jailing lawyers for subversion and anti-government activities, the government should ensure that lawyers can carry out their professional duties free of intimidation and interference."

In another case, the Ho Chi Minh law firm of Le Tran Luat was shut down on March 25, 2009, two days before the trial of Vietnamese Catholics arrested during a land dispute in Thai Ha parish in Hanoi, who he was to represent. As Le Tran Luat and Ta Phong Tan, a legal assistant, were preparing the case, police raided the law office and confiscated their computers, documents, and legal files. Since then the Vietnamese authorities have kept both lawyers under intrusive surveillance and prevented them from working. Companies attempting to hire them have been actively discouraged by the Ho Chi Minh City police, who have also pressured their landlords to evict them.

Several lawyers have been arbitrarily arrested for defending controversial cases or exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. On January 20, the People's Court of Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Le Cong Dinh, a lawyer who is former vice president of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association, to five years in prison on subversion charges under article 79. His arrest has been attributed to his alleged links with the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam and to his legal representation of human rights lawyers Le Thi Cong Nhan and Nguyen Van Dai, and Nguyen Van Hai, the blogger known as Dieu Cay.

Le Thi Cong Nhan, a democracy activist as well as a lawyer who advocated for the rights of workers, was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007 under article 88. Crimes listed in her indictment include "misinterpreting the state's policies regarding labor unions and workers in Vietnam," joining the Block 8406 democracy movement and the Vietnam Progressive Party, conducting human rights seminars, and possessing and distributing documents promoting human rights and democracy.

Since her release in March, police have detained her three times, most recently on November 4, when they held her for eight hours, questioning her about her poems and interviews on the internet.

Her colleague Nguyen Van Dai remains in prison, serving a four-year sentence under article 88. He was arrested for teaching law and human rights to students at his law firm. He founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam with Le Thi Cong Nhan in 2006, and took on the legal defense for embattled Protestant churches, including the Mennonite pastor and former political prisoner Nguyen Hong Quang.

Another lawyer in prison under article 88 is Tran Quoc Hien, director of a law firm in Ho Chi Minh City that defended farmers whose land had been confiscated by the government. He was arrested in January 2007 after publicly emerging as spokesman for the United Farmer and Workers Organization, an independent group.

Nguyen Bac Truyen, a lawyer who is a member of the People's Democratic party, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison in 2007 under article 88. Since his release in May, he has been an outspoken member of an association of former political and religious prisoners, granting detailed interviews to Radio Free Asia and the BBC about his prison experiences. In August, Ho Chi Minh City police detained and questioned him after he publicly called on Vietnam to release political prisoners.

 Le Quoc Quan, a lawyer whose firm defended workers' appeals for better wages and working conditions, was detained for three months in 2007 upon his return to Vietnam from the US, where he completed a research fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy. He was charged with conducting anti-government activities under article 79. Despite being beaten and detained by police in 2007 to prevent him from attending the appeals court hearing for Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, he has continued to speak out publicly in defense of rights defenders, independent bloggers, and religious freedom advocates.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers says that lawyers are entitled to the same rights as any other citizen to freedom of speech, belief, and association, including the right to participate in public discussions regarding law, administration of justice, and protection of human rights.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its call on the Vietnamese government to repeal national security laws that criminalize peaceful expression and association.

"Who will defend the community and human rights advocates if dedicated and courageous lawyers are thrown in jail or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs," Robertson said. "Vietnam's donors, especially those supporting legal and judicial reform, should insist that the government uphold the rule of law and stop harassing and jailing independent lawyers and rights defenders."

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