(Sydney) – Vietnamese authorities should immediately drop all charges related to unlawful departure against “boat people” returned from Australia, Human Rights Watch said today. Australia should immediately insist the cases be dropped, since Vietnam had promised there would be no retaliation against the Vietnamese migrants returned.

Tran Thi Thanh Loan and her four children. Tran Thi Thanh Loan was sentenced to three years in prison. She has appealed the verdict. Her husband Ho Trung Loi is currently serving a two year sentence. 

© Private

On May 26, 2016, the People’s Court of La Gi commune, in Binh Thuan province, is scheduled to hear the case of Nguyen Dinh Quy, 42, his wife Huynh Thi Kieu, 39, Tran Thi Lua, 37, and Nguyen Minh Quyet, 35, for “organizing for others to flee abroad illegally” under article 275 of the penal code. If convicted, they face up to seven years in prison.

In two separate incidents in April and July 2015, the Australian navy intercepted two boats at sea that were bound for Australia and returned all the passengers to Vietnam. In both cases, Vietnam gave assurances to the Australian government that it would not punish people for illegally leaving the country. However, individuals from both boats have been arrested, detained, charged, and – with respect to the April 2015 incident – convicted under article 275.

“Vietnam has blatantly broken its promise to the Australian government not to prosecute boat returnees,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Australia should tell the Vietnamese government to drop all charges immediately and release them.”

On July 1, 2015, the four defendants and 42 other people, including men, women, and children as young as four, left Vietnam on a boat from the city of Phan Thiet. On July 21, Australian officials intercepted their boat and transported them back to Vietnam by plane four days later.

Two of those returned told Human Rights Watch that before being sent back to Vietnam, an Australian immigration official told them that they would not be arrested or imprisoned and that the Vietnamese government would facilitate work for them and school for their children. On arrival at Tan Son Nhat airport, a Vietnamese official confirmed to the group in front of the Australian consulate’s representatives that they would not be arrested or detained. However, as Vietnamese authorities transported the group back to their hometown, police took Tran Thi Lua, Nguyen Dinh Quy, and Nguyen Minh Quyet to an unknown guest house in Phan Thiet and detained them there for 24 days without bringing charges or permitting them access to a lawyer.

On August 18, police formally arrested Tran Thi Lua, Nguyen Dinh Quy, and Nguyen Minh Quyet. Huynh Thi Kieu was also charged but not detained. According to state media and the indictment, Tran Thi Lua and Huynh Thi Kieu “had enticed and cajoled their family members, relatives and acquaintances” to join them on the trip. Nguyen Dinh Quy was accused of preparing the boat and Nguyen Minh Quyet was accused of being the helmsman.

After more than two months in detention, Tran Thi Lua was released on her own recognizance in early November due to health problems in detention. Nguyen Minh Quyet’s health also deteriorated badly in detention; he suffered a stroke, paralyzing both his legs, and was released in March. Nguyen Dinh Quy has remained in police custody since August.

A family member told Human Rights Watch that Nguyen Dinh Quy has heart, lung, and stomach problems and, more recently, pain in both legs. His wife offered to sponsor him to seek treatment at a hospital, but the authorities turned down her plea.

Imprisoning desperate people trying to leave their own country is cruel as well as unlawful.

Elaine Pearson

Australia Director

Conditions in prisons and detention facilities in Vietnam are notoriously bad. Prisoners and detainees lack adequate medical care and proper treatment. In April 2014, blogger Dinh Dang Dinh, 51, died shortly after being pardoned and released from prison. Three months later, activist Huynh Anh Tri, 42, died six months after completing a 14-year prison sentence. According to a report from the Ministry of Public Security, from October 2011 to September 2014, there were 226 cases of death in detention facilities, of which the main causes were illness and suicide.

“The Vietnamese government is prosecuting the four defendants for leaving Vietnam without the government’s permission, violating their fundamental right under international law to leave their own country,” Pearson said.

The right to leave any country, including one’s own, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Vietnam in 1982.

The Vietnamese government is currently prosecuting other people for leaving the country. On April 22, 2016, the People’s Court of La Gi commune, Binh Thuan province sentenced Tran Thi Thanh Loan to three years, her husband Ho Trung Loi to two years, Nguyen Thi Lien to three years, and Nguyen Van Hai to two years in prison under article 275 of the penal code.

According to state media, these four organized a boat carrying 46 men, women and children that left La Gi port in Binh Thuan province bound for Australia on March 7, 2015. Australian navy officials intercepted the boat two weeks later and held them at sea. On April 18, 2015, Australian officials returned the passengers to Vietnam. According to one of the returnees, an Australian immigration official told them on the ship that the Vietnamese government would not arrest or imprison any of them, but instead facilitate education for their children and community reintegration. Afterward, a Vietnamese security official boarded the vessel, witnessed by the Australian official, to welcome the group and reconfirm that no one would be arrested or imprisoned.

In May 2015, Australian border officials testified before an Australian Senate Estimates Committee that the government had been provided written assurance that these boat people would face “no retribution for their illegal departure from Vietnam.” The Australian government has issued no public statements on the first round of convictions or the upcoming trial. According to BBC Vietnamese, the Australian Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City declined to comment on the trial because the consulate “only deals with cases related to Australian citizens.”

“Imprisoning desperate people trying to leave their own country is cruel as well as unlawful,” Pearson said. “The Vietnamese government loses nothing by letting these people go, and Australia should press Vietnam to do so.”