(Washington, DC) – Vietnam’s intensifying crackdown on free expression should be a top agenda item during Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang’s summit with President Barack Obama this week, Human Rights Watch said today. Sang will be in the United States from July 24 to 26 and Obama will host him at the White House on Thursday, July 25, 2013.
Vietnam’s previous president Nguyen Minh Triet visited Washington in June 2007, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited in June 2008. Since those visits, a growing number of dissidents, bloggers, and religious leaders have been jailed in Vietnam. Convictions in the first half of 2013 have overtook the total of those convicted in 2012, which in turn exceeds the number in 2011 and 2010.
Under Vietnam’s harsh penal code, authorities routinely arrest dissidents for crimes such as “conducting propaganda,” “subversion of the people’s administration,” “disrupting the unity of the state,” or “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State or [its] citizens.” Vietnamese dissidents are often held incommunicado for lengthy periods, without access to counsel or family visits, often subjected to torture or other mistreatment, and prosecuted in politically controlled courts, which are increasingly handing out lengthy sentences.
“If criticizing the Vietnamese government is a crime, President Obama should show solidarity with dissidents by committing the crime himself,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “President Sang cannot publicly justify his government’s crackdown and should use this occasion to repudiate it.”
Human Rights Watch urged the Obama administration to speak publicly about particular dissident cases, such as convicted dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu, blogger Nguyen Van Hai (Dieu Cay), and lawyer Le Quoc Quan, who is awaiting trial on spurious “tax evasion” charges.
Obama has previously mentioned Nguyen Van Hai in a statement on World Press Freedom Day in May 2012, praising his courage amid a “mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam.” Several US senators, including John McCain, have denounced the arrest of Le Quoc Quan, a persistent government critic who has been repeatedly arrested by the Vietnamese government.
Obama should also raise concerns about the case of imprisoned religious leader Father Nguyen Van Ly, and the growing trend of arrests and persecution of bloggersand young dissidents, like Nguyen Phuong Uyen, Dinh Nguyen Kha, Dinh Nhat Uy, Nguyen Hoang Vi, and Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (a.k.a. Mother Mushroom), who were variously targeted for distributing leaflets critical of the government, holding “human rights picnics,” attending protests, or handing out pamphlets or copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Human Rights Watch urged the United States to suspend its defense and trade negotiations with Vietnam until the government ends its crackdown and pledges to repeal legal provisions criminalizing dissent.
“Governments that persecute citizens for holding picnics and handing out pamphlets should not be rewarded with better ties and preferential trade agreements,” Sifton said. “Obama should use this occasion to call this behavior what it is: authoritarianism.”
Worsening harassment of critics
Human Right Watch called particular attention to the worsening treatment of dissidents Cu Huy Ha Vuand Nguyen Van Hai, who have not been allowed to receive visits from international monitors or fellow Vietnamese concerned about their fate. Both men, having refused to admit their “guilt,” have been subjected to particular punitive measures by authorities.
Under Vietnam’s penal system, prison authorities conduct periodic reviews of prisoners and classify them under the terms “good,” “decent,” “average” or “poor.” Typically political prisoners in Vietnam only receive a classification of “good” or “decent” by admitting guilt.
Authorities continue to persecute Nguyen Van Hai, who is only three years into a 12-year sentence for his latest conviction on September 2012 for conducting propaganda against the state according to article 88 of the penal code. His last appeal was turned down on December 27, 2012, and authorities have repeatedly transferred him from one prison to another, to the total of 9 prisons since his arrest in April 2008 – apparently a punitive measure to make it difficult for his family to visit him.
Recently, the harassment has grown worse. On February 1, 2013, police transferred Nguyen Van Hai to a prison in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, without informing his family, who thereafter were granted two very brief visits. Prison authorities forced Nguyen Van Hai to give up all personal belongings that he had been keeping with him in the last five years – including newspapers, books, notebooks and pens – and locked him in isolation from other prisoners for more than two months. On April 27, Nguyen Van Hai was again transferred to a prison in Nghe An province and is being kept again in solitary confinement. According to other prisoners and his family members, he began a hunger strike approximately one month ago as a protest against the prison’s punishments.
Cu Huy Ha Vu, who is currently serving a seven year prison sentence, is also being subjected to punitive measures, which prison authorities have admitted they have imposed because of his refusal to admit guilt. In one legal document, authorities wrote that because Cu Huy Ha Vu will not “admit the sins that he caused; therefore during periodical reviews of the sentence serving, he has been placed in poor improvement category….”
Cu Huy Ha Vu has been stripped of several rights that other prisoners are allowed, including the rights to send mail, work with his legal case documents, and meet his wife in private once a month. Like other prisoners, his cell is poorly heated in winter and unvented in summer, subjecting prisoners to extreme cold and heat depending on the season. Dr.Vu, who has a congenital heart problem, now reportedly suffers from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Since being imprisoned, he often has severe headache on the left side, gout and itchy sores; the precise nature of his new health problems is not clear.
Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience – and at least consider releasing prisoners who are advanced in age or in poor health, such as Nguyen Van Hai and Cu Huy Ha Vu noted above, as well as Nguyen Huu Cau, Mai Thi Dung, Father Nguyen Van Ly, and others.
Vietnam is seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, which will require a vote in the UN General Assembly later this year. Human Rights Watch called on the United States and other nations to pressure Vietnam, in conjunction with this effort, to meet its international legal obligations.
“If Vietnam wants to stand on the world stage, its government should repudiate its crackdown on dissidents and embrace reform,” Sifton said. “The arc of history may be long, but it certainly bends away from authoritarian retrenchment.”