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Which is worse, being thrown in jail or getting beaten up? This is a question activists in Vietnam were pondering on International Human Rights Day this month.

The government of Vietnam has been sending people to prison for dissent for more than half a century. Lately, the government has tried to persuade other governments and diplomats that it is becoming more tolerant, pointing to what it claims are decreasing arrests of critics.

It is very difficult in a one-party state with a state-controlled media to know how many people are arrested for political reasons, particularly in rural and distant parts of the country, but there is no doubt that the number of detentions remains alarming.

It’s not as if we are witnessing a “Hanoi Spring.” In 2014, at least 29 activists and bloggers were sentenced to many years in prison for national security-related crimes such as abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state (Criminal Code article 258) or undermining national unity policy (article 87). This year, more than a dozen critics, including the prominent bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh, were arrested pending investigation. It may be a coincidence, but at the same time that the government has claimed it is decreasing political arrests, an alarming trend has developed. Thugs, who appear to be government agents in civilian clothes, have begun attacking dissidents with complete impunity, often in public. Most recently, on December 9, Nguyen Hoang Vi, a blogger, was walking home in Ho Chi Minh City when a group of men and women blocked her way, grabbed her hair and showered her with punches. Dozens of people, including members of government security forces stationed outside Vi’s house, watched without intervening. When a taxi driver attempted to take Vi to the hospital, the security forces intervened and forced him to take her home instead.This incident, a day before International Human Rights Day, is a sad illustration of the state of human rights in Vietnam. Vi and her fellow bloggers are an increasingly influential force in Vietnam’s social and political life, using the Internet to publish information and opinions not allowed in the country’s heavily censored traditional media. But they are under near-constant physical, political and legal assault.This was not the first time Vi was beaten by thugs for exercising her right to speak her mind. Security forces assaulted and locked her and another blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, inside Vi’s house to stop them from attending a gathering to celebrate International Human Rights Day last year. Other activists who came to support them were beaten. During an effort to hold a human rights picnic and to distribute copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at a park in Ho Chi Minh City, in May 2013 Vi and her fellow activists were detained and their personal belongings confiscated. When Vi tried to retrieve her belongings the next day, Vi, her mother and sister were beaten in front of the police station.

The use of thugs to attack human rights activists and bloggers has increased at an alarming rate. In February, anonymous thugs beat father-son bloggers Huynh Ngoc Tuan and Huynh Trong Hieu in Quang Nam province. Two months earlier, Huynh Ngoc Tuan had suffered broken bones in another assault while he was campaigning for the rights of former political prisoners. In May, assailants broke the activist Tran Thi Thuy Nga’s arm and leg. In November, thugs assaulted and injured Truong Minh Duc, a former political prisoner and blogger. Even the French Consul in Ho Chi Minh City was roughed up recently when he went to the scene of a standoff between activists and unidentified thugs.

The list goes on and on.

No one was charged in any of these cases. Most attacks have occurred during daylight hours in front of others. Uniformed police officers don’t intervene, most likely because they believe the attackers are state agents. Trying to stop the attacks, seemingly the only professional and ethical decision for a police officer, is just too risky, and could potentially cost them their jobs or worse.

The authorities also use proxies in social media to attack and defame bloggers and activists. But harassment, intimidation and assaults do not seem to deter the vibrant blogger community in Vietnam, though they are certainly bringing misery to individual activists. On December 10, Nguyen Hoang Vi uploaded a new Facebook profile picture of herself carrying a sign that says, “I support Human Rights because we cannot allow them to take away our Self-Respect.”

While the European Union and Japan want to increase trade links and the U.S. wants closer ties as a counterweight to China’s regional influence, these countries should remember that the best and most stable partners are governments that create a safe space for free speech, not those that beat and imprison people who express their own views.

Brad Adams is the Asia director at Human Rights Watch

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