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We write on the occasion of the forthcoming Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue, scheduled to be held in Hanoi on July 28, 2014. As the first such dialogue under the Abbott government, this represents a crucial opportunity to not only raise pressing human rights issues in an unambiguous manner, but also to improve the efficacy of the dialogue by setting clear benchmarks for improvements and making the outcome of the discussions public.

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.

Vietnam stresses that it accepted 182 of the 227 recommendations at a meeting on June 20, 2014 of the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the Universal Period Review of member-states’ human rights record. However, the government’s rebuff of crucial rights was affirmed. It reacted to calls by other governments for release of political prisoners and people detained without charge or trial, for legal reform to end politically-motivated imprisonment of people for their peaceful exercise of fundamental human rights, for the creation of an independent Vietnamese human rights institution, and for other steps to genuinely promote equal political participation by the Vietnamese people.

While there is a plethora of serious human rights problems in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch recommends that Australia focus on the following three key areas during the human rights dialogue. 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. We also suggest the government set clear benchmarks for improvements in these areas, so it is easier to track progress from one dialogue to another.

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. The government bans all political parties, unions, and human rights organizations that are independent of the government or the Vietnamese Communist 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 and  Doan Huy Chuong, who were imprisoned in 2010.

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).

In 2013, Vietnam used these draconian laws to imprison at least 65 peaceful bloggers and activists for exercising their rights. During the first five months of 2014, at least 10 other critics and activists were put behind bars including prominent bloggers Truong Duy Nhat and Pham Viet Dao. In May 2014, the authorities arrested prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (a.k.a Ba Sam) and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy and charged them with article 258.

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) Ngo Hao (15 years); 3) Ho Duc Hoa (13 years); 4) Dang Xuan Dieu (13 years); 5) Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a Dieu Cay; 12 years); 6) Nguyen Cong Chinh (11 years); 7) Pham Thi Phuong (11 years); 8) Ta Phong Tan (10 years); 9) Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung (9 years); 10) Tran Thi Thuy(8 years); 11) Nguyen Dang Minh Man (8 years); 12) Phung Lam (7 years);  13) Doan Huy Chuong (7 years); 14) Pham Van Thong (7 years); 15) Nguyen Ngoc Cuong (7 years); 16) Nguyen Xuan Nghia (6 years); 17) Tran Vu Anh Binh (6 years); 18) Nguyen Kim Nhan (5 years and six months); 19) Ho Thi Bich Khuong(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) A Tach (a.k.a Ba Hlol; 11 years); 6) Dinh Yum (11 years); 7) Rung (10 years); 8) Siu Nheo (10 years); 9) Siu Wiu (10 years); 10) Siu Brom (10 years); 11) Siu Thai (a.k.a. Ama Thuong; 10 years); 12) Nhi (a.k.a. Ba Tiem; 10 years); 13) Roh (10 years); 14) Run (9 years); 15) Ro Mah Pla (a.k.a Ama Em; 9 years); 16) Rah Lan Mlih (9 years); 17) Ro Mah Pro (9 years); 18) Rah Lan Blom (9 years); 19) Siu Koch (a.k.a. Ama Lien; 9 years); 20) Kpuil Mel (9 years); 21) Ro Lan Ju (a.k.a. Ama Suit; 9 years); 22) Pinh (9 years); 23) Jonh (a.k.a Chinh; 9 years); 24) Kpuil Le (8 years); 25) Kpa Sinh (8 years); 26) Ro Mah Klit (8 years); 27) Am Linh (a.k.a. Ba Blung; 8 years); 28) Chi (8 years); 29) Yưh (a.k.a. Ba Nar; 8 years); 30) Rơ Mah Then (8 years); 31) Byuk (8 years); 32) A Hyum (a.k.a Ba Kol; 8 years); 33) Siu Tinh (8 years); and many others.

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia should publicly call on the Vietnam 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 Australia 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.  

Australia 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 April 2014, blogger Dinh Dang Dinh died shortly after being amnestied from prison, at the age of 51. In July 2014, former political prisoner Huynh Anh Tri died six months after completing a 14-year prison sentence, at the age of 42. Some of the most urgent cases for immediate release are:

Father Nguyen Van Ly, 68, 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 prison to serve the rest of his eight-year prison term.

The Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Mai Thi Dung, 45, 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.

Other activists who are reportedly suffering serious health problems including religious activists Ngo Hao and Nguyen Cong Chinh, land rights campaigner Ho Thi Bich Khuong, bloggers Nguyen Van Hai, Ta Phong Tan and Dang Xuan Dieu. Australia should urge Vietnam to immediately release these prisoners so they can seek proper medical care.

2. Repression of freedom of religion
In January 2013, the prime minister put Decree 92 into effect, further extending controls on religious groups. In its enforcement actions, the government monitors, harasses, and sometimes violently cracks down on religious groups that operate outside of official, government-registered and government-controlled religious institutions. Targets in 2013 included unrecognized branches of the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant and Catholic house churches in the central highlands and elsewhere, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

The January 2013 conviction and imprisonment of 14 mostly Catholic activists by the People’s Court of Nghe An province initiated the year’s upsurge of government attacks on critics. The vehicle this time was article 79 of the penal code, prohibiting activities aimed at “overthrowing the government,” even though the 14 activists were exercising fundamental human rights, such as participating in volunteer church activities and peaceful political protests. Also in January 2013, the court of Phu Yen province convicted 22 members of a group who refers to itself as Hoi dong Cong luat Cong an Bia Son (the Council for Public Law & Affairs of Bia Mountain) to hundreds of years in prison, ranging from 10 years to life sentence. State media reports label the group as a “politically reactionary” organization which is “non-violent” but whose goal is to “overthrow the people’s administration.” Of the 10 activists convicted in the first five months of 2014, eight were punished for participating in independent religious groups unapproved by the government.

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia should publicly call on the Vietnam 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. Human Rights Watch believes that some goods made with forced labor are imported into Australia.

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia 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.

Although the Vietnamese government bears responsibility for the human rights abuses that occur in Vietnam’s drug detention centers, Human Rights Watch believes that the involvement of external organizations, such as donor agencies and implementing NGOs, raises serious ethical concerns and, in some cases, may indirectly facilitate human rights abuses. AusAID funds work in a number of centers in Vietnam, including supporting CARE Australia to work in the centers in An Giang and Can Tho, and HAARP (HIV/AIDS Regional Programme) to work in three centers in northern Vietnam. AusAID claims “strong support for civil and political rights throughout our aid work” and that it “seeks to maximise the benefits for human rights in all development assistance activities.” However, despite implementing projects in what are essentially forced labor centers, both AusAID and CARE Australia also claim to be unaware of any human rights abuses against detainees of those centers. CARE Australia has stated to Human Rights Watch that while its projects are guided by various codes of conduct, those codes do not specifically cover handling suspected human rights violations that staff witness or receive reports about while implementing projects.

Human Rights Watch continues to call for the Australian government to review all funding, programming, and activities directed to assisting Vietnam’s drug detention centers to ensure no funding is supporting policies or programs that violate international human rights law, including prohibitions on arbitrary detention, forced labor, and torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

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