(New York) – Vietnam is using vague national security laws to stifle dissent and arrest critics, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States and other signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) should press Vietnam to drop proposed legislation that would add even more rights-abusing penalties to its already draconian criminal code.

Vietnam's Public Security Minister General Tran Dai Quang at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on August 18, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

In November 2015, the public security minister, General Tran Dai Quang, reported to the National Assembly that from June 2012 until November 2015, “The police have received, arrested, and dealt with 1,410 cases involving 2,680 people who violated national security.” He said, “During this same period, opposition persons have illegally established more than 60 groups and organizations in the name of democracy and human rights, which have about 350 participants from 50 cities and provinces.”

“The Vietnam government’s announcement of thousands of arrests, while admitting that it is targeting democracy and human rights groups, is deeply troubling,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This suggests the government is massively overusing the country’s repressive national security laws to criminalize peaceful expression and persecute critics.”

Vietnam’s National Assembly is considering a revised penal code and code of criminal procedure at its current session, which will close on November 28. The proposed amendments appear to be aimed at activists and critics. Instead of repealing its draconian laws, the government has proposed even harsher punishments for bloggers and rights activists.

Vietnam has a continuing record of detaining people for long periods for alleged national security violations, without access to legal counsel or family visits, and with inadequate medical care. The status of each of the 2,680 people Gen. Quang mentioned should be clarified as soon as possible. The Vietnamese government should release information on each of these cases, including the person’s name; the charges filed, if any; whether the person has been convicted; the amount of time each person was or has been held in custody; and other relevant details.

Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its 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); “disrupting security” (article 89, penalty up to 15 years); “fleeing abroad or stay abroad to oppose the people’s government” (article 91, penalty up to life sentence); and “supplemental punishment” which strips former prisoners convicted of “national security” crimes of certain rights, puts them on probation for up to five years, and allows confiscation of part or all of their property (article 92).

Current laws are bad enough and often used arbitrarily by the government to silence critics. But to imprison someone for up to five years just because the government thinks they may speak out or organize dissent is simply absurd.

Brad Adams

Asia director

Vietnam also uses other articles in the penal code to target peaceful dissent, including “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), “causing public disorder” (article 245), and charges such as tax evasion.

Among the harsher provisions proposed are new clauses in article 109 (originally article 79), article 117 (originally article 88), and article 118 (originally article 89), which has a new clause that states, “The person who takes actions in preparation of committing this crime shall be subject to between one and five years of imprisonment.”

“Current laws are bad enough and often used arbitrarily by the government to silence critics,” Adams said. “But to imprison someone for up to five years just because the government thinks they may speak out or organize dissent is simply absurd.”

During 2014 and 2015, in the midst of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Vietnam released 14 bloggers and activists under pressure from the US. However, others remain in police custody, some of whom have not been put on trial. Those serving sentences include the bloggers Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Bui Thi Minh Hang, Father Nguyen Van Ly; the musicians Tran Vu Anh Binh and Vo Minh Tri; the rights activists Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, and Nguyen Dang Minh Man; and the land rights activist Ho Thi Bich Khuong. Others who have not been put on trial include the bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh (known as Anh Ba Sam), Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, and Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (known as Nguyen Ngoc Gia), who were arrested in 2014.

With the spotlight on labor rights, in June 2014 Vietnam released labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh, who was arrested and charged in 2010 under article 89 for helping organize a wildcat strike. Hanh’s fellow activists Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung and Doan Huy Chuong remain behind bars. If the revised penal code is passed, Hanh, Hung, and Chuong could be arrested simply on the basis of the authorities’ worry that they might help organize strikes.

According to Gen. Quang’s report, the police have “timely prevented activities of opposition persons in the country who stirred and agitated the people to gather, march, and protest against the Party and the State. [The police] have actively attacked against [opposition groups] in the political realm and divided and isolated leading figures in order to prevent them from gathering forces in the form of ‘civil social organizations.’” Gen. Quang insisted that the tasks for the police include “preventing any plan to form and publicize domestic opposition political organizations, as well as activities that form and publicize illegal groups and organizations on the Internet.”

“It appears that the Vietnamese government played nice during TPP negotiations, but now that the agreement has been signed it is taking steps to tighten government control over critics,” Adams said.