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HRW Submission to EU on Bilateral Dialogue with Vietnam

EU–Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue

Human Rights Watch Recommendations

December 2015


Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing preparations for the forthcoming EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue, scheduled to be held in Hanoi on December 15, 2015.

Despite renewed economic growth and progress on a number of social indicators in 2015, Vietnam’s record on civil and political rights remained dismal. The ruling Communist Party has a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership. Basic rights, including freedoms of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted. Rights activists and dissident bloggers face constant harassment and intimidation, including physical assault and imprisonment. Farmers continue to lose land to development projects without adequate compensation and workers are not allowed to form independent unions.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the EU should focus on political prisoners and detainees, and examine three key priority areas in its upcoming human rights dialogue with Vietnam. These three priority areas are the following: repression of freedom of speech and freedom of association; repression of the right to freely practice religion; and police brutality.

While we welcome the human rights dialogue as a vehicle for engaging with Vietnamese authorities about human rights concerns, we consider it of paramount importance that human rights concerns remain an integral part of the EU-Vietnam relationship at all levels. The EU should ensure that it is not an isolated dialogue with little, if any, resonance in the overall EU-Vietnam relationship.

1. Political Prisoners and Detainees

Vietnam has a continuing record of sentencing peaceful bloggers and activists to harsh prison terms for exercising their basic rights. The authorities often detain people for long periods for alleged national security violations, without access to legal counsel or family visits, and with inadequate medical care.

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.”

Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its penal code and other laws to imprison peaceful political and religious dissidents. Under the 2009 revised penal code 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). Vietnam also uses other articles in the penal code to target peaceful dissenters, 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.

Instead of repealing its draconian laws, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a revised penal code on November 27, 2015 which appeared to extend liability even further for bloggers and rights activists. Among the harsher provisions are new clauses in article 109 (originally article 79), article 117 (originally article 88), and article 118 (originally article 89), that states, “The person who takes actions in preparation of committing this crime shall be subject to between one and five years of imprisonment.” The amendments will become effective on July 1, 2016.

Bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh (known as Anh Ba Sam), Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, and Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (known as Nguyen Ngoc Gia), arrested in 2014 for their pro-democracy blogging activities, remain in police custody and have still not been put on trial at time of this writing.

In April, the authorities arrested Nguyen Viet Dung for participating in a “pro-tree” peaceful march at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi and charged him with disrupting public order under article 245 of the penal code. In August, police in Thanh Hoa province arrested Dinh Tat Thang for sending out letters criticizing provincial leaders and police. He was charged under article 258. In September, police in Thai Binh province arrested former political prisoner Tran Anh Kim for “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” under penal code article 79 because of his alleged establishment of a pro-democracy group. Tran Anh Kim had recently finished a five year, six month prison sentence in January 2015, also under article 79 for his connection with the banned Vietnamese Democratic Party. In November, police in Khanh Hoa arrested Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy for alleged violation of article 88 because he allegedly posted comments critical of the government on Facebook.

Discrimination against ethnic minority groups can significantly worsen the already horrific prison conditions they experience. Many members of ethnic minorities are targeted for arrest on account of their practice of unsanctioned religions or their religious beliefs.

Persons imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly 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 Cong Chinh (11 years); 6) Pham Thi Phuong (11 years); 7) Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung (9 years); 8) Tran Thi Thuy (8 years); 9) Nguyen Dang Minh Man (8 years); 10) Father Nguyen Van Ly (8 years); 11) Phung Lam (7 years);  12) Doan Huy Chuong (7 years); 13) Pham Van Thong (7 years); 14) Nguyen Ngoc Cuong (7 years); 15) Tran Vu Anh Binh (6 years); 16) Nguyen Kim Nhan (5 years and six months); and many others.

Ethnic minority individuals imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression, belief and religion 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) Kpuih Khuong (11 years);  8) Rung (10 years); 9) Siu Nheo (10 years); 10) Siu Wiu (10 years); 11) Siu Brom (10 years); 12) Siu Thai (a.k.a. Ama Thuong; 10 years); 13) Nhi (a.k.a. Ba Tiem; 10 years); 14) Roh (10 years); 15) A Kuin (a.k.a Ba Chan; 9 years 6 months); 16)  Run (9 years); 17) Ro Mah Pla (a.k.a Ama Em; 9 years); 18) Rah Lan Mlih (9 years); 19) Ro Mah Pro (9 years); 20) Rah Lan Blom (9 years); 21) Siu Koch (a.k.a. Ama Lien; 9 years); 22) Kpuil Mel (9 years); 23) Ro Lan Ju (a.k.a. Ama Suit; 9 years); 24) Pinh (9 years); 25) Jonh (a.k.a Chinh; 9 years); 26) Rmah Khil (9 years); 27) Rmah Bloanh (8 years); 28) Kpuil Le (8 years); 29) Kpa Sinh (8 years); 30) Ro Mah Klit (8 years); 31) Am Linh (a.k.a. Ba Blung; 8 years); 32) Chi (8 years); 33) Yưh (a.k.a. Ba Nar; 8 years); 34) Rơ Mah Then (8 years); 35) Byuk (8 years); 36) A Hyum (a.k.a Ba Kol; 8 years); 37) Siu Tinh (8 years); and many others.


During the upcoming dialogue, the EU should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese 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 association, and cease arresting and detaining others for such actions.
  • Amend or repeal provisions in the penal code and other laws that criminalize peaceful dissent on the basis of imprecisely defined “national security” crimes.
  • As an immediate confidence-building measure, allow access to prisoners or detainees by families, legal counsel, and outside observers from the EU and international humanitarian and human rights groups.

The EU should also call for the immediate release of political prisoners or detainees who have health problems so that they can receive proper medical treatment. Some of the most urgent cases for immediate release are Father Nguyen Van Ly, religious activists Ngo Hao and Nguyen Cong Chinh and bloggers Dang Xuan Dieu and Nguyen Huu Vinh.

2. Repression of freedom of speech and freedom of association

Vietnam continues to suppress dissent by peaceful dissidents and activists and punishes them 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 Party.

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 of the 2009 penal code for helping organize a wildcat strike. But other labor activists including Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung and Doan Huy Chuong are still serving harsh prison sentences. On November 22, 2015, the police of Dong Nai province detained and assaulted Do Thi Minh Hanh for helping workers at Yupoong Company to exercise their rights.

Vietnamese dissidents say that violence or harassment by plainclothes police thugs is the new norm. Thugs, who appear to be government agents in civilian clothes, have been attacking dissidents at an increasing rate, often in public, and with complete impunity. Uniformed police officers do not intervene, most likely because they believe the attackers are state agents. The authorities have also been using proxies in social media to attack and defame bloggers and activists.

During 2015, at least 40 bloggers and rights activists were beaten by plainclothes agents. They included Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh, Tran Thi Nga, Nguyen Chi Tuyen, Trinh Anh Tuan, Dinh Quang Tuyen, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Chu Manh Son, Dinh Thi Phuong Thao, and Tran Minh Nhat. No one involved in the assaults was held accountable.


During the upcoming dialogue, EU should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Bring press laws into compliance with article 19 of the ICCPR.
  • Allow 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.
  • Bring legislation regulating public gatherings and demonstrations into conformity with the rights of free assembly and association in articles 21 and 22 the ICCPR.
  • Address rural grievances about land rights and local corruption without resorting to excessive use of force or other human rights violations by strengthening the legal system and the independence of the judiciary, and making legal services available to the rural poor.
  • Permit individuals the right to associate freely and peacefully with others of similar views regardless of whether those views run counter to the political or ideological views approved by the Party and state.
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all persons detained for peaceful activities to promote the rights of workers to freely associate, including the right to form and join trade unions of their own choice; to peacefully assemble to protect and advance their rights; and to exercise their right to freedom of expression on behalf of workers and their concerns.
  • Immediately recognize independent labor unions.
  • Ratify ILO Conventions No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize) and No. 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining).
  • Immediately end government-sponsored vigilantism.

3. Repression of Freedom of Religion

The government restricts religious practice through legislation, registration requirements, harassment, and surveillance. Religious groups are required to gain approval from and register with the government as well as operate under government-controlled management boards.

While authorities allow many government-affiliated churches and pagodas to hold worship services, they ban religious activities they arbitrarily deem contrary to the “national interest,” “public order,” or “national great unity.” In 2015, authorities interfered with the religious activities of 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.

In January 2015, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt issued a report identifying “serious problems” in Vietnam’s approach to religion, notably “legal provisions that tend to give broad leeway to regulate, limit, restrict or forbid the exercise of freedom of religion or belief.”

In April 2015, the Ministry of Interior published the 4th draft of a Law on Belief and Religion, scheduled to be approved by the National Assembly in 2016. Although the draft contains a few marginal improvements on the existing legal framework, it maintains mechanisms allowing authorities to persecute religious groups they dislike and could even give such mechanisms greater legal force.

Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the Vietnamese government’s ongoing persecution of ethnic Montagnard Christians in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, one aspect of a broader pattern of rights violations against religious minorities in the country. Accused of practicing “evil way” religions, Montagnard practitioners of the De Ga and Ha Mon forms of Christianity are persecuted pursuant to high level government policy. They are subjected to constant surveillance and other forms of intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and mistreatment while in security force custody. In detention, the authorities question them about their religious and political activities and possible plans to flee Vietnam. Over the past year, hundreds have fled to Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese authorities have responded to the flight of Montagnards into Cambodia by pressuring Cambodian authorities to prevent border crossings and deny those who do cross the right to seek asylum; Cambodian authorities, in turn, refuse to register more than a handful as asylum seekers.


During the upcoming dialogue, the EU should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Allow all independent religious organizations to freely conduct religious activities and govern themselves. Churches and denominations that do not choose to join one of the officially authorized religious organizations with government-sanctioned boards should be allowed to operate independently.
  • End harassment, arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, and ill-treatment of people because they are followers of disfavored religions, and release anyone currently being held for peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of religion, belief, expression, assembly, and association.
  • Cease all measures to prevent Montagnards and other Vietnamese citizens from leaving the country and do not punish those who return.
  • Ensure all domestic legislation addressing religious affairs is brought into conformity with international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Vietnam and EU member states are parties. Amend provisions in domestic law that impinge on freedom of religion and belief, expression, association, or peaceful assembly in violation of the ICCPR.
  • Permit outside observers, including United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights, and foreign diplomats, unhindered and unaccompanied access to the Central Highlands, including specifically to communes and villages from which Montagnards have recently departed to seek asylum abroad. Ensure there is no retribution or retaliation whatsoever against anyone who speaks to or otherwise communicates with such outside observers.

4. Police Abuse: Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment and Torture

Police throughout Vietnam have been abusing people in their custody, in some cases leading to death. In many of these cases, those killed were being held for minor infractions. A number of survivors said they were beaten to extract confessions, sometimes for crimes they maintained they did not commit. Although the government promised improvements after Human Rights Watch published its findings about police brutality, it appears that officers who have committed serious, even lethal, transgressions have only rarely faced the serious consequences the law requires.


During the upcoming dialogue, the EU should:

  • Express strong concern to Vietnamese officials about police abuse, emphasizing that it violates both Vietnamese and international law, that perpetrators should be punished, and that victims should receive remedy and compensation.
  • Urge the government of Vietnam to establish effective accountability mechanisms. For instance, Vietnam should establish an independent police complaints commission to accept complaints from the public and to provide oversight over the “internal affairs” or “professional responsibility” unit of the police. The commission should be a statutory body with the legal authority to bring prosecutions or impose discipline if the internal affairs or professional responsibility unit fails to do so in cases in which credible allegations have been made.
  • Amend the Criminal Procedure Code to facilitate the presence of lawyers or legal counsel immediately after arrest or detention so that:
    • Lawyers or legal counsel only need to present their identity card and a certified copy of their license to meet their clients.
    • Lawyers or legal counsel may meet their clients in private and for as long as necessary.
    • Lawyers or legal counsel may be present at all interrogation sessions between police and detainees.

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