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(Bangkok) – Vietnamese authorities should drop politically motivated charges against three activists and immediately release them, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 26, 2014, the People’s Court of Dong Thap province is scheduled to hear the case of Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, and Nguyen Van Minh, who were arrested in February 2014 and charged with “causing public disorder” by creating “serious obstruction to traffic.” Under article 245 of Vietnam’s penal code, they face up to seven years in prison if convicted.

“The Vietnamese government is now resorting to bogus traffic offenses to criminally prosecute activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The authorities should recognize this case is not worth the international ridicule it will cause and drop the charges immediately.”

On February 11, a group of 21 bloggers and Hoa Hao Buddhist activists rode motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City to Lap Vo district in Dong Thap province to visit former political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen and his fiancé, Bui Thi Kim Phuong, an independent Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioner, whom police had harassed, detained and interrogated the previous day. As the group neared their destination, police stopped them for an alleged traffic violation, and then stood by while unidentified thugs in civilian clothes beat up several group members. The police then arrested all the activists, but only charged prominent blogger Bui Thi Minh Hang, 50, rights activist Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, 28, and independent Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioner Nguyen Van Minh, 34.

The activists have suffered loss of freedom and various due process violations while in detention. Immediately after being detained, Bui Thi Minh Hang and Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh went on a two-week hunger strike to protest the circumstances of their arrest. The authorities initially obstructed efforts by their defense lawyer, Ha Huy Son, to see their case files. On July 22, Ha Huy Son filed a motion against the Dong Thap province police for failing to provide him the findings of their criminal investigation as required by law. On March 22, authorities harassed and intimidated family members of Bui Thi Minh Hang, including her son Tran Bui Trung and her daughter Dang Thi Quynh Anh, when they tried to rally support for their mother in Hanoi.

About the activists
Bui Thi Minh Hang is a prominent activist who played a leading role in the protests against Chinese territorial claims on the Spratly and Paracel islands in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City between June and August 2011. On November 27, 2011, police arrested Bui Thi Minh Hang outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City for allegedly “causing public disorder” because of her silent protest against the arrests of other peaceful protesters. The next day the police ordered her detained without trial and sent her to Thanh Ha Education Center in Vinh Phuc province for 24 months of administrative detention.

After a domestic and international outcry, the authorities released Bui Thi Minh Hang in April 2012. After her release, she immediately resumed her human rights campaigning. She wrote and published online a memoir describing her experience in the Thanh Ha Education center. She has protested at her home in the city of Vung Tau by affixing statements denouncing police and government abuses on the gate of her house and providing free copies to passersby. She also distributed a “Manual for the Implementation of Human Rights” (Cam nang thuc thi quyen lam nguoi) for people demanding their rights through peaceful activism. She also has repeatedly attempted to attend the trials of fellow human rights activists.

Bui Thi Minh Hang and her family members have long faced intimidation, harassment, and intrusive surveillance by the police. State newspapers and television channels have repeatedly attacked her in their reports. Police have failed to act when anonymous attackers assaulted her and her son, and unidentified persons have thrown rotten food into her front yard at night.

“The more the government tries to silence Bui Thi Minh Hang, the more vocal she becomes in her advocacy for basic rights and freedoms,” Robertson said. “The government should start listening to what she and other activists are saying instead of locking them up behind bars.”

Nguyen Van Minh is an independent Hoa Hao Buddhist activist who has campaigned for freedom of religion and conscience. His wife, Bui Thi Diem Thuy, is also a religious activist whose father, Bui Van Trung, and brother, Bui Van Tham, are currently serving prison terms on politically motivated charges under article 257 of the criminal code for “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties.” Human Rights Watch believes they are being persecuted because they follow and support an independent Hoa Hao Buddhist group instead of joining the state-sanctioned one.

Little is known about the third detainee, Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh.

Vietnam’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2013 has not resulted in any significant improvements in the country’s human rights record.

“Vietnam got a seat on the UN Human Rights Council but this hasn’t ended the repression of human rights activists in the country,” Robertson said. “Bilateral donors and UN agencies should press Vietnam to abide by its international obligations and stop imprisoning people whose only crime is calling for human rights and democratic reform.”

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