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(New York) – The European Union should press Vietnam to release all political prisoners and to carry out concrete improvements in freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion during a dialogue in Hanoi on January 12, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today in a memo to the EU.

During 2011, at least 33 peaceful bloggers and rights activists were convicted of crimes for expressing their political and religious beliefs. The authorities arrested at least 27 other rights activists pending investigation and/or trial. In addition, two bloggers – Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a. Dieu Cay) and Phan Thanh Hai (a.k.a. Anhbasg) – have been held without trial since 2010. A land rights activist, Bui Thi Minh Hang, was sent to an education camp for two years of administrative detention without trial for participating in peaceful protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that took place between June and August.

In the 13-page memo, Human Rights Watch said the EU should press the Vietnamese government for progress in four key areas: respecting freedom of speech and association and releasing dissidents detained for exercising those rights; respecting the right to practice religion freely; addressing abuse by police and officials in detention centers and ending impunity for such abuse; and halting forced labor in drug rehabilitation centers, re-education centers, and centers for sex workers and homeless people.

“Vietnam’s diplomats like to tout the country’s respect for rule of law to foreign partners,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But a justice system that imprisons people who protest peacefully contradicts the government’s empty assurances. EU officials should use the dialogue to demand the same respect for international legal commitments to human rights that they expect for the provisions of international trade and aid agreements.”

Following the conclusion of a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 2010, the EU and Vietnam agreed to conduct an annual human rights dialogue that will alternate between Brussels and Hanoi. The first round of the dialogue will take place on January 12, 2012, in Hanoi.

The EU should call for the immediate release of all political prisoners facing serious health problems so that they can receive proper medical treatment, Human Rights Watch said. In July and September, 2011, at least two political prisoners – Nguyen Van Trai and Truong Van Suong – died in jail.

The EU should raise grave concerns about the health of a number of current prisoners. For example, the poet and anti-corruption campaigner Nguyen Huu Cau, 65, has served a total of 34 years in prison since 1975 – from 1975-1980 in a re-education camp and from 1982 until the present for exposing corruption of local authorities. He has lost most of his vision and is almost completely deaf. Hoa Hao activistMai Thi Dung, 42, serving an 11-year prison term for advocating Hoa Hao Buddhism, is gravely ill, with both feet paralyzed, and is suffering from heart disease and gallstones, said Hoa Hao Buddhist activists who visited her in 2010.

“Both Nguyen Huu Cau and Mai Thi Dung should be immediately released so they can receive proper medical treatment,” Robertson said. “The EU should ask the Vietnam authorities what they have to fear from severely ill prisoners and why they can’t afford to make the humanitarian gesture of medical parole.”

Some other political prisoners facing difficult health conditions include the Catholic activist Nguyen Van Ly, the Hoa Hao Buddhist campaigner Nguyen Van Lia, and the labor advocate Do Thi Minh Hanh. All three are serving long prison terms for peacefully exercising their rights.

In addition to asking for the immediate release of political prisoners and detainees, the EU should urge Vietnam to honor its commitment to freedom of speech, association, and religion, Human Rights Watch said. The country should also end brutality by prison officials and forced labor practices in drug rehabilitationcenters and centers for sex workers.

“Recent research by Human Rights Watch found cashews and other goods being produced by forced labor in drug detention centers and then exported,” Robertson said. “The EU should advocate a different, more humane and evidence-based model for rehabilitation and ensure that no goods tainted by forced labor are imported into the Community.”


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