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Vietnam: Make Rights a Priority on EU Visit

Stress Need to Free Dissidents, Respect Religious Freedom, End Forced Labor

(New York) – European Union President Herman Van Rompuy should publicly press Vietnam to release all political prisoners and detainees, respect freedom of religion, and abolish forced labor in drug detention centers during his visit from October 31 to November 2, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today.

Earlier in October Human Rights Watch sent a memo, summarized below, to the European Union outlining key recommendations on each of these issues. The memo includes the names of some political prisoners who should be immediately and unconditionally released.

“While Europe sees Vietnam as an important trading partner, President Van Rompuy should not relegate human rights to a secondary issue,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Right Watch. “Vietnam regularly imprisons its citizens for asking for democracy and the same freedoms that Europeans take for granted. Van Rompuy has an ethical obligation to make clear to the Vietnamese government that it cannot operate a repressive dictatorship without consequences for its relations with the EU.”

Human Rights Watch Recommendations to European Union President Van Rompuy

The Vietnamese government continues to systematically suppress freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely placed under intrusive police surveillance.

Critics face multiple forms of police harassment, including intimidation of family members, arbitrary prohibitions on travel within Vietnam or abroad, and fines. Authorities also arbitrarily detain critics incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits. Many are sentenced to long terms in prison for violating vague national security or other draconian laws. Police frequently torture suspects to elicit confessions and respond to public protests over evictions, confiscation of land, and police brutality with excessive use of force.

While there is a plethora of serious human rights problems in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch recommends that President Van Rompuy focus on the following three key areas in his trip to Vietnam from October 31-November 2. These areas are political prisoners and detainees and lack of basic freedoms; repression of the right to freely practice religion; and forced labor in drug detention centers.

1. Political prisoners and detainees and lack of basic freedoms
Vietnam continues to suppress peaceful dissent and punish dissenters for forming organizations that the government views as hostile to its interests. During the first nine months of 2012 alone, the government sentenced at least 31 peaceful dissidents and activists to prison for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and freedom or organization enshrined in the Vietnam Constitution.

The government bans all political parties, unions, and human rights organizations that are independent of the government or the Vietnamese Communist Party. Decree 45 (2010) provides for strict government control of associations, which effectively serve as agencies of government ministries or the party.

Vietnamese workers are forbidden from organizing unions independent of the government-controlled labor confederation. Government regulations impose fines on workers who participate in “illegal” strikes not approved by the government and enable local officials to force striking workers back to work.

Activists who announce the formation of independent trade unions in Vietnam are arrested, imprisoned, harassed, intimidated, beaten, and in some cases “disappeared.” Le Tri Tue, one of the founders of the Independent Workers’ Union, has been forcibly disappeared since May 2007. Labor activists are punished with harsh prison sentences, such as Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, Do Thi Minh Hanh and Doan Huy Chuong, who were imprisoned in 2010. On August 2012, the People’s Court of Hanoi sentenced the rights advocate Le Thanh Tung to five years in prison for defending workers and land petitioners.

Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted national security and other crimes in Vietnam’s penal code and other laws to imprison peaceful political and religious dissidents. These include “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” (penal code article 79, penalty up to death sentence); “undermining national unity policy” (article 87, penalty up to 15 years in prison); “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 88, penalty up to 20 years in prison); “disrupting security” (article 89, penalty up to 15 years in prison); “fleeing abroad or stay abroad to oppose the people’s government” (article 91, penalty up to life sentence); “supplemental punishment” which strips former prisoners convicted of “national security” crimes of certain rights, puts them on probation up to five years and allows confiscation of part or all of their property (article 92); and “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the State and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and citizens” (article 258, penalty up to 7 years in prison).

Discrimination against ethnic minority groups that are culturally and, in many cases, linguistically different can significantly worsen the already horrific prison conditions for ethnic minority prisoners.

Political prisoners include: 1) Tran Huynh Duy Thuc(sentenced to 16 years in prison); 2) Nguyen Van Hai(a.k.a Dieu Cay; 12 years); 3)Nguyen Cong Chinh (11 years); 4) Pham Thi Phuong(11 years); 5) Ta Phong Tan (10 years); 6) Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung(9 years); 7) Tran Thi Thuy(8 years); 8) Phung Lam(7 years);  9) Do Thi Minh Hanh(7 years); 10) Doan Huy Chuong(7 years); 11) Cu Huy Ha Vu(7 years); 12) Nguyen Tien Trung (7 years); 13) Pham Van Thong(7 years); 14) Nguyen Ngoc Cuong(7 years); 15) Dinh Dang Dinh(6 years); 16) Nguyen Xuan Nghia(6 years); 17) Nguyen Kim Nhan(5 years and six months); 18) Ho Thi Bich Khuong(5 years); 19) Le Thanh Tung(5 years); and 20) Phan Ngoc Tuan (5 years).

Ethnic minority prisoners include: 1) Rmah Hlach (a.k.a. Ama Blut; sentenced to 12 years); 2) Siu Hlom (12 years); 3) Siu Ben (12 years); 4) Noh (12 years); 5) Siu Nheo (10 years); 6) Siu Wiu (10 years); 7) Siu Brom (10 years); 5) Siu Thai (a.k.a. Ama Thuong; 10 years); 6) Nhi (a.k.a. Ba Tiem; 10 years); 7) Roh (10 years); 8) Rah Lan Mlih (9 years); 9) Ro Mah Pro (9 years); 10) Rah Lan Blom (9 years); 11) Siu Koch (a.k.a. Ama Lien; 9 years); 12) Kpuil Mel (9 years); 13) Ro Lan Ju (a.k.a. Ama Suit; 9 years); 14) Pinh (9 years); 15) Kpuil Le (8 years); 16) Kpa Sinh (8 years); 17) Ro Mah Klit (8 years); 18) Am Linh (a.k.a. Ba Blung; 8 years); 19) Yưh (a.k.a. Ba Nar; 8 years); and 20) Rơ Mah Then (8 years).

President Van Rompuy should call on the Vietnamese government to:

·      Release all political prisoners and detainees, including those imprisoned or detained for exercising their rights to free expression, assembly, movement, or political or religious activity.

·      Amend or repeal provisions in the penal code and other laws that criminalize peaceful dissent on the basis of imprecisely defined “national security” crimes, including penal code articles 79, 87, 88, 89, 91, 92, and 258.  

·      As an immediate confidence-building measure, allow access to prisoners or detainees by families, legal counsel, and outside observers from the EU, European embassies and international humanitarian and human rights groups.

·      Provide information about the situation of ethnic minority prisoners who have been convicted for “undermining national unity policy” (article 87) or “disrupting security” (article 89).

·      Bring media and other laws into compliance with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

·      Authorize the publication of uncensored, independent, privately run newspapers and magazines.

·      Remove filtering, surveillance, and other restrictions on Internet usage and release people imprisoned for peaceful dissemination of their views over the Internet.  

Van Rompuy should also call for the immediate release of political prisoners or detainees who have serious health problems so that they can receive proper medical treatment. In July and September 2011, Nguyen Van Trai and Truong Van Suong died in prison. Some of the most urgent cases for immediate release are:

·      Father Nguyen Van Ly, 65, who was sentenced on March 30, 2007, by the People’s Court of Thua Thien – Hue for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” according to article 88 of the penal code. He suffered multiple strokes in prison in 2009, as a result of which his right arm and leg are paralyzed. In 2010, he was released on medical parole for 16 months and kept under house arrest. In July 2011 Father Nguyen Van Ly was sent back to prisonto serve the rest of his eight-year prison term.

·      The poet and anti-corruption campaigner Nguyen Huu Cau, 65, who has served a total of 34 years in prison since 1975. His first term in prison was from 1975 to 1980 in a re-education camp; the second term has been from 1982 until the present for exposing corruption of local authorities. Authorities convicted him of  “destruction,” a very serious charge in the early 1980s when Vietnam was a largely closed country. The prosecutor in his trial was one of the officials whom Nguyen Huu Cau had accused of corruption. Authorities used songs and poems he wrote as evidence of his “reactionary” activities. Originally sentenced to death, Nguyen Huu Cau is now serving a life term. He has lost most of his vision and is almost completely deaf.

·      The Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Mai Thi Dung, 43, who is currently serving an 11-year prison term. During the crackdown on independent Hoa Hao Buddhist groups in 2005, the government convicted Mai Thi Dung of disrupting public order according to article 245 of the penal code and sentenced her to five years in prison. In 2007, while she was in prison, the People’s Court of Vinh Long tried her for involvement in a protest by independent Hoa Hao Buddhist groups in 2001 and sentenced her to an additional six years in prison, again for violating article 245. She is now reportedly gravely ill, with both of her feet paralyzed, and suffering from gallstones and various diseases.

·      The Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Nguyen Van Lia, 71, formerly a religious prisoner, who was sentenced to five years in prisonon December 13, 2011, for “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of states and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and citizens” according to article 258 of the penal code. His sentence was reduced to four years and six months on appeal in March 2012. He has reportedly by family members lost most of his hearing, has several broken ribs from previous injuries, resulting from assaults by anonymous thugs, and suffers from high blood pressure.

2. Repression of freedom of religion
Vietnam continues to closely monitor, systematically harass, and sometimes violently crack down on independent religious groups that remain outside of official, government-registered-and -controlled religious institutions. Religious organizations that faced such actions by the authorities include unrecognized branches of the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant house churches in the central highlands and elsewhere, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).

On March 26, 2012, the Protestant pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “undermining national unity” under article 87 of the penal code for his religious activities. From March to September 2012, the authorities sent 17 other religious activists to prison. At least 32 other religious activists are currently in detention awaiting trial. Religious leaders including the UBCV supreme patriarch, Thich Quang Do, and independent Hoa Hao Buddhist leaders Le Quang Liem and Vo Van Thanh Liem are under house arrest and face continuous, sometimes intrusive, surveillance.

In June and July, 2012, local authorities harassed, intimidated, and tried to prevent Catholic priests from performing masses at the house of a Catholic follower in Yen Khe commune, Con Cuong district, Nghe An province. Also in June, local government authorities harassed and prevented priests from performing prayer sessions at the house of a Catholic follower in Chau Binh commune, Quy Chau district, Nghe An province. In both cases, local Catholics have filed multiple requests to concerned authorities to form new parishes, but the authorities have not granted permission.

Van Rompuy should press the Vietnamese government to:

  • Allow independent religious organizations to freely conduct peaceful religious activities in accordance with international legal standards.
  • End restrictions on peaceful gatherings or activities by religious groups that are not registered with the government, such as unsanctioned organizations of Hoa Hao Buddhists, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, and Cao Dai, Protestant and Catholic groups.
  • Stop pressuring these groups to join government-authorized churches.
  • End abusive police surveillance and harassment of religious leaders and followers.
  • Allow so-far unrecognized religious organizations to obtain legal status and operate independently of already-registered religious organizations if they choose to do so.
  • End its longstanding discrimination against ethnic minority Christians in the Northern and Central Highlands and ethnic Khmer Buddhists in the Mekong Delta and allow independent NGOs, UN agencies, diplomats, and the media to freely monitor conditions in these remote and difficult to reach areas.


3. Forced labor in drug rehabilitation centers

People dependent on drugs may be held in government detention centers, where they are forced to perform menial work in the name of “labor therapy,” the mainstay of Vietnam’s approach to drug treatment. In early 2011 there were 123 centers across the country holding some 40,000 people. Their detention is not subject to any form of due process or judicial oversight and routinely lasts for as long as four years. Infringing center rules – including the requirement to work – is punished by beatings with truncheons, shocks with electrical batons, and being locked in disciplinary rooms, where detainees are deprived of food and water. Children who use drugs are also held in these centers, where they must also perform “labor therapy,” and are beaten and abused. Former detainees reported being forced to work in cashew processing and other forms of agricultural production (including potato or coffee farming), garment manufacturing, construction work, and other forms of manufacturing (such as making bamboo and rattan products). Under Vietnamese law, companies that source products from these centers are eligible for tax exemptions. Some of the products produced as a result of forced labor made their way into the supply chain of companies who sell goods abroad, including to the US and Europe.

Van Rompuy should publicly call on the Vietnam government to:

  • Close all drug detention centers.
  • Release all detainees in drug detention centers and allow them to access treatment in the community.
  • Instruct the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) to abolish forced labor in all centers under its authority, including drug detention centers.
  • Carry out prompt, independent, and thorough investigations into the labor conditions in drug detention and others types of centers, as they amount to forced labor in violation of Vietnamese and international law. Follow up abuses and crimes with appropriate legal actions (including criminal prosecution) against those who have committed crimes or other offences against detainees in violation of Vietnamese law.
  • Publish a list of all forms of work in which detainees in the centers are involved, which products are processed using detainee labor in the centers, and the companies whose products are processed using detainee labor in the centers.
  • Instruct the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA) to provide adequate compensation to detainees and former detainees for the forced labor they performed while in detention.
  • Promptly ratify and effectively implement ILO Convention No. 105 (Abolition of Forced Labor).
  • Meet the government’s obligations under ILO Convention 29 by immediately revising the Penal Code to establish a specific criminal offense applicable to forced labor.

In the context of the EU's existing preferential trade programs with Vietnam, the EU should initiate an ongoing review of Vietnam’s eligibility, in light of Vietnam's failure to protect of the rights of people who use drugs. The EU currently grants Vietnam preferential trade benefits under its own system of Generalized System of Preferences. The European Council Regulation governing this system allows for “the suspension of preferential arrangements, regarding all or certain products originating in a beneficiary country, where it considers that there is sufficient evidence that temporary withdrawal would be justified,” including where there are “serious and systematic violations of principles” laid down in certain international human rights and labor rights conventions, on the basis of the conclusions of the relevant monitoring bodies.

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