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(Sydney) – Australia should use the upcoming Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue to press the Vietnamese government to make concrete and measurable improvements in its abysmal human rights record. These include promptly releasing all political prisoners and ending restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion.

The 11th rights dialogue between the two countries is the first with the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. It is scheduled to take place in Hanoi on July 28, with side events on July 29 and 30, 2014.

“Australia should make clear that if Vietnam wants to be considered a responsible international partner, it needs to meet its international human rights obligations,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The countries should use this dialogue to set clear benchmarks for improvements in key areas like freedom of expression, religion, and association.”

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said that bilateral human rights dialogues are an important mechanism for conveying Australia’s human rights concerns in a regular and systematic manner, and as a means of enabling frank discussions on sensitive issues.

In a 7-page submission to the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department, Human Rights Watch urged Australia to press the Vietnamese government for progress in three key areas of concern:  political prisoners; repression of freedom of religion; and forced labor in drug detention centers.

Approximately 150 to 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam simply for exercising their basic rights. During the first half of 2014, the Vietnamese authorities released a number of political prisoners, including Cu Huy Ha Vu, Do Thi Minh Hanh, Lu Van Bay, Nguyen Huu Cau, Nguyen Tien Trung and Vi Duc Hoi. However, during that same period, at least 14 other activists and critics of the government were jailed, including the prominent bloggers Truong Duy Nhat and Pham Viet Dao. In May, the authorities arrested another prominent blogger, Nguyen Huu Vinh (known as Anh Ba Sam), and his assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, and charged them with violating penal code article 258 on “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.”

During 2013, Vietnam prosecuted and imprisoned at least 65 peaceful bloggers and activists, using draconian provisions such as “conducting propaganda against the state” (penal code article 88); participating in “activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” (article 79); “undermining national unity policy” (article 87); and “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state” (article 258).

“In addition to dialogues with Western governments, Vietnam should hold dialogues with its own citizens even when their opinions differ from the government, instead of silencing them with arrest and prison,” Pearson said. “The Vietnamese government needs to realize it can’t solve the country’s huge social and political problems by throwing all its critics in jail.”

Australia should call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Vietnam. Particular attention should be paid to those facing serious health problems so that they can receive proper medical treatment, Human Rights Watch said. In April, the blogger Dinh Dang Dinh died—at 51—shortly after being pardoned and released from prison. In July, Huynh Anh Tri died at 42, six months after completing a 14-year prison sentence.

There is urgent concern about the imprisoned Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Mai Thi Dung, who is reportedly gravely ill, with both of her feet paralyzed, suffering from gallstones and various diseases. Other activists who are reportedly suffering serious health problems include the religious activists Ngo Hao, Nguyen Van Lia, Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh and Father Nguyen Van Ly, the land rights campaigner Ho Thi Bich Khuong, and the bloggers Nguyen Van Hai, Ta Phong Tan and Dang Xuan Dieu.

Australia should also call on Vietnam to honor its commitment to respect the rights to freedom of speech, association, assembly, and religion, Human Rights Watch said. Vietnam’s recent rebuff of crucial rights recommendations during its Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva indicates an unwillingness to improve its rights record.

The country should also end abuses in drug detention centers, where people alleged to use drugs are held without due process for years, forced to work for little or no pay, and suffer torture and mistreatment by center staff. Research by Human Rights Watch found that cashews and other goods being produced by forced labor in drug detention centers made their way into the supply chain of companies that sell goods abroad, and were then exported to other countries, including Australia.

“Australia should call on Vietnam to close drug detention centers, release the detainees and allow them access to treatment in the community,” Pearson said. “If Australia gives Vietnam an easy ride on human rights, the government will have little reason to change its abusive practices.”

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