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(New York) – Despite renewed economic growth and progress on a number of social indicators in 2015, the government of Vietnam continued to crack down on independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists deemed threatening to Communist Party rule, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Vietnam clamped down on basic rights, including freedoms of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion. Pro-democracy activists and bloggers faced constant harassment and intimidation. Physical assaults on critics increased. The National Assembly passed a revised penal code widening the basis for criminal conviction of bloggers and rights activists. Farmers continued to lose land to development projects without adequate compensation, and workers were not allowed to form independent unions. Independent home churches and religious groups were not permitted to operate.

“Vietnam tried to minimize political trials and convictions in 2015 to gain favor during the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, but repression against activists remained firm, with beatings increasing,” said Brad Adams, Asia director.

In November, Police General Tran Dai Quang publicly admitted that within the last three years the government had “received, arrested, and dealt with cases involving 2,680 people who violated national security” and noted that “opposition persons” had illegally established more than 60 human rights and democracy groups.

Those arrested in 2015 include a range of advocates for peaceful causes, ranging from environmentalism to political pluralism. 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 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. In December, the police arrested prominent rights campaigner Nguyen Van Dai and charged him with “conducting propaganda against the state” according to article 88 of the penal code. His fellow activist Le Thu Ha was also arrested.

With the spotlight on labor rights in the TPP negotiations, 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 to organize a wildcat strike. Other labor activists, including Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung and Doan Huy Chuong, continued to serve harsh prison sentences. In November 2015, the police of Dong Nai province detained and assaulted Do Thi Minh Hanh for helping workers at Yupoong Company exercise their rights.

In 2015, at least 45 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, Ta Tri Hai, Tran Minh Nhat, and Nguyen Van Dai. No one involved in the assaults was held accountable.

“As part of an international public relations campaign, the government appears to have changed tactics by arresting fewer critics and replacing prison with beatings,” said Adams. “A change from imprisonment to physical assault can hardly be called an improvement.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed new laws to legalize sex reassignment surgery and gender recognition for transgender people who have undergone such surgery. A provision in the revised criminal procedure code that will allow suspects to refuse to make statements against themselves was also passed by the National Assembly in November 2015. Other positive developments include required recording of interrogations on video and the elimination of the requirement of lawyers to obtain certificate of defender for every single case they defend.

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