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(New York) ­– The Vietnam government intensified its repression of activists and dissidents during 2011, and cracked down harshly on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. Bloggers, writers, human rights defenders, land rights activists, anti-corruption campaigners, and religious and democracy advocates faced harassment, intimidation, arrest, torture, and imprisonment.

In 2011, the government prosecuted at least 33 peaceful activists and sentenced them to a total of 185 years in prison, to be followed by a total of 75 years on probation. Among those convicted for their peaceful advocacy are Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, a prominent legal activist; and Phung Lam, Vi Duc Hoi, Nguyen Ba Dang, Pham Minh Hoang, Lu Van Bay, and Ho Thi Bich Khuong, all prominent pro-democracy advocates and human rights bloggers. The authorities arrested at least 27 other rights activists pending investigation and/or trial. At least 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.

“The human rights situation in Vietnam is poor and worsening, with a steady stream of people being locked up for nothing more than exercising their rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam's development donors should publicly express unstinting support for Vietnam's courageous activists and demand the immediate release of everyone who has been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned.”

In its World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the formation of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

In Vietnam, most political detainees and prisoners have been charged with vaguely-worded articles in Vietnam’s penal code that criminalize peaceful dissent. These crimes include “subversion of the people’s administration” (article 79); “undermining the unity policy” (article 87); “conducting propaganda against the state” (penal code article 88); and “abusing democratic freedoms” to “infringe upon the interests of the State” (article 258).

“Vietnam denies imprisoning people for simply expressing divergent political views, but it doesn’t hesitate to use these draconian laws to hammer political dissidents,” Robertson said. “If the government wants to be seen as respecting rule of law, it should meet its international human rights commitments by abolishing these laws and ending its criminalization of these peaceful activists.”

Freedom of religion fared little better as police subjected members of independent religious groups to repeated harassment, intimidation, and arrest. The government targeted unsanctioned branches of the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, Protestant and Mennonite house congregations, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). Police prevented public celebration of religious events, intimidated and detained participants, and placed prominent leaders of these groups under house arrest. Even registered religious organizations such as the Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were harassedrepeatedly, including a mob attack against the Thai Ha Catholic church in Hanoi.

In April, eight Montagnard Protestant activists were sentencedto prison terms ranging from 8 to 12 years, for allegedly undermining national unity policy. In July, over the protests of diplomats and activists alike, a gravely ill Catholic priest, Nguyen Van Ly, was sent back to prisonafter 16 months of confinement at a church-owned residence while on medical parole.

In November, the Falun Gong activists Vu Duc Trung and Le Van Thanh were sentenced to three years and two years in prison, respectively, for broadcasting news about Falun Gong to China. In December, the People’s Court of An Giang sentenced the religious activistsNguyen Van Lia and Tran Hoai An to five years and three years, respectively, for their peaceful advocacy for Hoa Hao Buddhism. Also in December, the Protestant pastor Nguyen Trung Ton was sentenced to two years in prison for his writings about the authorities’ repression of religion. The police have also detained at least another nineteen Catholic and two Protestant activistsin 2011.

“The government wants to divorce religion from activism of any type, but freedom of religion includes freedom to speak, write and protest on issues of religious belief, ethics, and rights,” Robertson said. “The United States should re-designate Vietnam a ‘country of particular concern’ for its continuous violations of religious freedom, and rally other governments to press these issues with the leaders in Hanoi.”

Vietnamese law authorizes arbitrary “administrative detention” without trial. Under Ordinance 44 (2002) and Decree 76 (2003), peaceful dissidents and others deemed to threaten national security or public order may be involuntarily committed to mental institutions, placed under house arrest, or detained in state-run “rehabilitation” or “education” centers. Drug users can be held up to four years in government-run rehabilitation centers where they receive very little treatment but  are subjected  abuse including beatings, torture, forced labor (in the guise of so-called “labor therapy”), and solitary confinement.

Former detainees in drug-detention centers reported being forced to work in cashew processing and other forms of agricultural production, and garment manufacturing and other forms of manufacturing, such as making bamboo and rattan products. Under Vietnamese law, companies that handle products from these centers are eligible for tax exemptions. Some products produced as a result of this forced labor made their way into the supply chain of companies that sell goods abroad, including to the United States and Europe.

An assessment in early 2011 found that 123 drug detention centers across the country held 40,000 people, including children as young as 12. In November, the Hanoi Municipal People’s Committee ordered police to send a land rights activist, Bui Thi Minh Hang, to detention for 24 months in an education center.

“No one should be subject to forced labor and denigration under any circumstances, much less in the name of ‘treatment’ or ‘education,’” Robertson said. “Vietnam should immediately release these detainees, close these abusive centers, and repeal ordinances and decrees authorizing administrative detention.”


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