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(London) – The Vietnamese government is systematically suppressing freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecuting those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013.

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In 2012, authorities arbitrarily arrested activists, held them incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits, subjected them to torture, and prosecuted them in politically controlled courts that meted out long prison sentences for violating vaguely worded national security laws or other criminal provisions.

“The human rights situation in Vietnam took a another step backwards in  2012, with the authorities pursuing harsh policies in defiance of growing domestic expressions of political, social, and economic dissatisfaction,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “At a time when its ASEAN colleague Burma is undergoing significant change, the Vietnamese government stands out for its retrograde policies, persecuting activists, and holding back the country’s development.”

Last year saw an unprecedented surge in criticisms of the ruling Communist Party. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung came under sustained attacks from within the ruling and the National Assembly, culminating in a public call by assembly member Duong Trung Quoc in November for Dung’s resignation. The criticism came amidst arrests of well-connected tycoons and managers of state-owned enterprises for alleged corruption and other economic crimes, a fall in Vietnam’s growth rate to the lowest point in 13 years, and infighting between Dung and other senior officials, including the Party Secretary General and Vietnam’s President, Truong Tan Sang.

Bloggers and others joined in the criticism of officials and policies. This was met with a large number of arrests and prison sentences. By the end of 2012, at least 40 activists were convicted and sentenced to many years in prison under articles 79 (subversion), 87 (undermining unity), 88 (propaganda against the state), 89 (disrupting security), and 258 (infringing state interests) of the penal code, a substantial increase on the figures for 2011. At least 31 others were arrested and kept in detention pending trial by the end of 2012.

The government attempted to crackdown on internet freedom through its draft Decree on the Management, Provision, and Use of Internet Services and Information on the Network, which threatened to outlaw posting internet content deemed to oppose the government or be contrary to national security, reveal state secrets, or promote “reactionary” ideas. The government continued blocking access to politically sensitive websites and required internet café owners to monitor and store information about users’ online activities.  In September, Dung ordered a further clampdown, calling on the Ministry of Public Security to target blogs and websites not approved by the authorities, and to punish those who created them.  

“Vietnam’s donors and those interested in the country’s development have for far too long been doling out huge sums of aid and making large investments without using their leverage to insist on an end to repression,” said Adams. “For every critical public statement about the rights situation made by a foreign government, there are dozens of visiting delegations that provide photo-ops and legitimacy to a government that has a deplorable human rights record.”

Rising repression

Indicative of the rising repression to deal with the increasing dissent were a series of trials throughout 2012 that jailed people for exercise of their basic rights, as described in the Human Rights Watch World Report. For example, in March, dissident Protestant Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison on a charge of “undermining national unity.” Rights activists Ho Thi Hue and Nguyen Bich Thuy received two years each for participating in protests against land confiscation in Tay Ninh province.

In other illustrative cases, in March, May, and September, five Catholic activists – Vo Thi Thu Thuy, Nguyen Van Thanh, Dau Van Duong, Tran Huu Duc, and Chu Manh Son – were sentenced to between two and a half and four year prison terms each for distributing pro-democracy leaflets. In a summary trial on September 24, a court convicted Vietnam’s three most prominent dissident bloggers, Nguyen Van Hai (known as Dieu Cay), Ta Phong Tan, and Phan Thanh Hai (known as Anhbasg), for violating article 88 of the penal code and sentenced them to 12, 10, and 4 years in prison, respectively (Phan Thanh Hai’s sentence was later reduced to three years). The authorities also used article 88 to silence other bloggers and rights activists. In October, musicians Tran Vu Anh Binh and Vo Minh Tri (known as Viet Khang) were sentenced to six and four years’ imprisonment, respectively, for writing songs critical of the regime.

The year ended with another major blow to human rights: the December 27 arrest of Hanoi-based human rights defending lawyer Le Quoc Quan on what appeared to be politically motivated charges of tax evasion, shortly after he wrote an article criticizing the leading role given to the Communist Party in the Vietnamese political system.

Land was a flashpoint issue, with local farmers and villagers facing arbitrary confiscation of their land by government officials and private sector project operators.

“Land disputes have repeatedly led to violent confrontations between villagers and security forces, and unless the authorities deal constructively with popular grievances, further social explosions are inevitable,” Adams said.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about torture and other mistreatment by police. At least 15 people died in police custody during the first nine months of 2012, including some who were beaten to death, according to accounts in state-controlled media. Police used excessive force in response to public protests. For example, on August 5, the authorities forcibly dispersed peaceful marchers in Hanoi protesting the Chinese government position on sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratly islands, also claimed by Vietnam.

Government decree 92, issued on November 8, strengthened its regulation of religious freedom by laying down new requirements for official legal recognition of religious groups, such as demonstrating they have not previously infringed on national security. The government generally restricts religious freedom through legislation, registration requirements, and by harassing and intimidating unsanctioned and politically suspect religious groups, including Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, and other faith communities.

“The past year should serve as a wake-up call for those, such as the Japanese government, who conduct business as usual while Vietnamese citizens are routinely sentenced to long terms in prison for simply expressing their opinions,” Adams said.

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