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Australia: Urge Human Rights Improvements in Vietnam

Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue Scheduled for April 26-27 in Hanoi

(New York) – Australia should urge Vietnam to release all political prisoners and to end restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, belief, and religion when the two sides meet for their annual bilateral human rights dialogue in Hanoi on April 26-27, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today in a 16-page memo submitted to Australia.

During the first quarter of 2012 alone, Vietnam sent at least 12 people to prison for exercising these rights peacefully. This follows the imprisonment of at least 33 rights activists and internet bloggers who were convicted in 2011 for simply expressing their political and religious beliefs.

“Vietnam has mastered the practice of harassing, arresting, and charging activists brave enough to speak their minds with vaguely worded national security crimes that carry severe penalties,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia should call out the Vietnam authorities on their farcical claims that they don’t have any political prisoners, because all those convicted have violated these rights-abusing laws.”

Australian officials should urge Vietnam to amend or repeal provisions in the penal code, the Ordinance on Religion, Ordinance 44 on Handling of Administrative Violations, and other domestic laws that criminalize peaceful dissent and certain religious activities in contravention of Vietnam’s obligations as a state that has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In particular, Australia should press for revocation or amendment of “national security” crimes, including penal code articles 79 (“subversion of people’s administration”), 87 (“undermining the unity policy”), 88 (“propaganda against the state”), 89 (“disrupting security”), 91 (“fleeing or staying abroad to oppose the people’s government”), 92 (“supplemental punishment” to strip citizen rights), and 258 (“abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state”).

Human Rights Watch pointed out that in practice, those who form or join any political party in serious opposition to the Communist Party of Vietnam can be accused of “subversion of the people’s administration” while those unwilling to conform to state-controlled religious organizations are frequently prosecuted for “undermining the unity policy.” Activists who write pro-democracy articles and anti-government commentaries and give interviews with foreign-based radio stations such as Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA), and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) are often held for “conducting propaganda against the state.”

Workers or land protesters who organize public protests or wild-cat strikes are more likely to be accused of “disrupting security.” Rights activists who try to flee Vietnam, or go overseas to conduct training and then return to Vietnam, can be accused upon arrest of “fleeing abroad or staying abroad to oppose the people’s government.” Religious activists, land rights petitioners, or anti-corruption campaigners are also prosecuted for “abusing democratic freedoms” to “infringe upon the interests of the State.” Finally, after serving many years in prison, those convicted under the above-mentioned articles can find themselves subjected to “supplemental punishment” which strips such former prisoners of certain citizen’s rights for up to five years, places them on probation or effective house arrest, and authorizes confiscation of a part or all of their properties.

“Vietnam’s diplomats like to tout the country’s respect for rule of law to foreign partners,” said Robertson. “But a justice system that imprisons people who protest peacefully contradicts the government’s empty assurances. Australian 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.”

Human Rights Watch also called on Australiato prioritize the immediate release of all political prisoners facing serious health problems so that they can receive proper medical treatment. In July and September, 2011, at least two political prisoners – Nguyen Van Trai and Truong Van Suong – died in jail.

In particular, Australia should raise grave concerns about the health of a number of current prisoners. For example, the poet and anti-corruption campaigner Nguyen Huu Cau, 66, has served a total of 34 years in prison since 1975. He has lost most of his vision and is almost completely deaf. Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Mai Thi Dung, 43, 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. 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 pro-decmocracy writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia. All three are serving long prison terms for peacefully exercising their rights.

“Father Nguyen Van Ly, Nguyen Huu Cau, Mai Thi Dung, Nguyen Van Lia, and Nguyen Xuan Nghia should be immediately released so they can receive proper medical treatment,” Robertson said. “Australia should ask across the table to their Vietnam interlocutors what they have to fear from severely ill activists and demand the authorities immediately permit humanitarian medical parole for these prisoners.”

Australia should also raise serious concerns about the use of administrative detention to detain a land rights activist, Bui Thi Minh Hang, who was sent to Thanh Ha education center 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. On April 4, 2012, officials at Thanh Ha Education center prevented her from signing a document that would launch a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the decision that sent her to an education center without any trial.

In their decision on Bui Thi Minh Hang, the Hanoi Municipal People’s Committee cited Decree 76, which provides guidance for sending people to “education centers.” According to article 35 of this decree: “Persons subject to the application of measure of consignment to education center or their lawful representatives may lodge their complaints about, or initiate administrative lawsuits against, the application of such measure.” However, the authorities have ignored complaints lodged by Bui Thi Minh Hang’s lawyer, Ha Huy Son.

“To send Bui Thi Minh Hang to an education center just because she participated in peaceful protests is a clear violation of international human rights law,” said Robertson. “Australia should raise concerns and urge the authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally.”

In addition to the issue of political prisoners and detainees, Human Rights Watch said Australia should press the Vietnam government to address abuses by police and officials in detention centers and end impunity for such abuse, and halt forced labor in drug rehabilitation centers.

“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. “Australia should advocate a different, more humane and evidence-based model for rehabilitation and ensure that no goods tainted by forced labor are imported into Australia.”

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