(New York) - The Vietnam Communist Party should renounce its practice of tightening controls on peaceful dissent in the lead up to the Eleventh Party Congress and free those who have been imprisoned, detained, and censored, Human Rights Watch said today. The nine-day congress, which starts on January 12, 2011, will determine the party's leadership and direction for the next five years.

There has been a dramatic spike in repression as the date for the congress nears. This reflects recent high-level directives instructing authorities throughout the country to ensure that dissidents, religious freedom activists, land rights petitioners, and ethnic minorities belonging to independent religious groups do not to stir up trouble before and during the congress.

"Why are Vietnam's leaders still afraid to hear the concerns of their own citizens?" said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "As they plan for the next five years, Vietnam's leaders should come up with a plan to improve their dismal human rights record, instead of clearing the decks for their meeting by arresting and intimidating critics."

As an example of recent directives to silence critics, on December 30, 2010, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued an official notice, No. 2402/CD-TTg. "The government at all levels must concentrate on effectively dealing with all complicated and sensitive issues related to ethnic minorities, religion and large groups of petitioners," it says. "Do not allow anything complicated to happen so that hostile forces can distort the situation and stir up resistance."

Twenty-five years after the Sixth Party Congress of 1986 in which the government embarked on the policy of "renovation," and 19 years after Vietnam approved its 1992 constitution, which enshrines human rights as a top national priority, Vietnam's progress on human rights and governance reforms remains abysmal, Human Rights Watch said.

"At the congress, the new leaders should break with the past and embrace a new vision that respects people's right to peaceful and free expression, assembly, and association."  Robertson said. "But rather than encouraging open debate, the leadership is obsessed with silencing critical voices."

With security forces on high alert throughout the country, last week's incident in which a US diplomat was assaulted by police in Hue while trying to visit a dissident Catholic priest, Nguyen Van Ly, comes as no surprise, Human Rights Watch said.

"The shocking assault on a foreign diplomat that became an international incident only points out that ordinary Vietnamese citizens get heavy-handed treatment like this by the police every day, far from the public spotlight," Robertson said. "The point is that Vietnamese citizens deserve the same rights as anyone to assemble peacefully, express themselves, travel, or form associations."

There has been a steady stream of political trials and arrests of dozens of democracy activists, independent writers, online critics, and members of unsanctioned religious groups. More than 400 people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for the exercise of fundamental rights.

In Orwellian fashion, Human Rights Watch said, many activists are imprisoned on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms" of speech, assembly, and association to "infringe upon the interests of the state," under article 258 of the Penal Code.

"Crackdowns on peaceful government critics are nothing new in Vietnam," Robertson said. "There is an ongoing chokehold on political repression that tightens prior to any high-profile event."  

Human Rights Watch made the following recommendations to Vietnam's leaders in advance of the Eleventh Party Congress:

  1. Reverse laws and policies that trample freedom of expression. Currently, the state maintains strict control over all television channels, radio stations, publishing houses, more than 700 print newspapers and magazines, and thousands of online newspapers, websites, and web portals. Officials routinely fire and occasionally jail journalists who write about "sensitive" issues. They harass, arrest, and imprison bloggers critical of state policy. Cyber-attacks, some originating from internet providers in Vietnam, have been carried out against independent websites.
  2. Reaffirm that the Vietnamese police are not above the law. Police brutality is widespread and security officers routinely use excessive force without oversight or accountability. There have been an alarming number of fatalities in police custody over the past year, including the deaths of a number of detainees held for minor infractions.
  3. Order officials to prohibit the seizure of private land to facilitate development projects, without providing adequate compensation, and end harsh repression of public protests against unfair land confiscations, including the use of lethal force against demonstrators. Officials should recognize the legitimacy of class-action petitioners, bring an end to violent attacks against peaceful protesters, and release land rights activists who have been arrested on trumped-up charges.
  4. Guarantee freedom of religion. During 2010, police broke up gatherings of independent Protestant groups; arrested members of independent Mennonite churches, Cao Dai followers, and Montagnard house churches; harassed and restricted the movement of Hoa Hao Buddhists and leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam; violently dispersed Catholic parishioners protesting the confiscation of church property; and routinely threatened and intimidated religious activists.
  5. Revise its rigid policy toward workers and permit freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively, in line with international labor standards. The state currently prevents workers from forming independent unions, jails peaceful labor activists, and retaliates against workers who strike without government permission.
  6. Assert protection for lawyers and human rights defenders. Currently, the state pressures lawyers not to take on sensitive cases dealing with governmental abuse of powers, subjecting those who do to harassment, arrest, disbarment and imprisonment. Vietnamese who have tried to establish independent human rights organizations, or who have sent information about rights violations to international human rights groups or UN bodies, have been harassed, detained, and arrested.
  7. Ensure that all government laws and regulations are in accordance with international human rights standards, and call for the repeal of provisions in the penal code and other laws that restrict or criminalize the right to peaceful dissent and independent religious activities, such as: penal code article 79 ("opposing the people's administration"), article 88 ("conducting propaganda against the state"), and article 258 ("abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state").

"It is time for Vietnam to focus on human rights, not party rights," Robertson said. "To move the country forward, Vietnam's leaders should permit Vietnamese citizens to enjoy fully the rights enshrined in the international covenants Vietnam has signed, rather than focusing efforts on undermining fundamental freedoms and stifling dissent."