Australia – Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue

Human Rights Watch Submission

August 2016

 

We write on the occasion of the forthcoming 13th Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue, scheduled to be held in Vietnam in August 2016. Australia should raise pressing human rights issues in an unambiguous manner, set clear benchmarks for improvements, and make the outcome of the discussions public.

The Vietnamese government continues to systematically suppress freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely placed under intrusive police surveillance. Critics face multiple forms of police harassment, including intimidation of family members, arbitrary prohibitions on travel within Vietnam or abroad, physical assaults, and fines. Authorities also arbitrarily detain critics incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits. Many are sentenced to long terms in prison for violating vague national security or other draconian laws. Police frequently torture suspects to elicit confessions and sometimes respond to public protests with excessive use of force.

Human Rights Watch recommends that Australia should focus on political prisoners and detainees; harassment, violence, and restrictions on activists and dissidents; repression of freedom of religion; police brutality; and Vietnamese boat returns.

 

1. Political Prisoners and Detainees
Vietnam has a record of sentencing peaceful bloggers and activists to harsh prison terms for exercising their basic rights. More than a hundred known political prisoners are currently behind bars, though the total number is likely larger. At the end of this submission is a list of the publicly known cases. 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 at the time, 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 2015 revised penal code, which will become effective in the near future, these include “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” (penal code article 109, penalty up to death sentence); “undermining national unity policy” (article 116, penalty up to 15 years in prison); “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 117, penalty up to 20 years); “disrupting security” (article 118, penalty up to 15 years); 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 122). 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 331, originally article 256); “disrupting public order” (article 318, originally article 245); and charges such as tax evasion.

The revised code includes harsher provisions in a number of cases such as article 109 (originally article 79); article 117 (originally article 88); and article 118 (originally article 89). Each has a 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.”

During the first five months of 2016, at least a dozen critics and activists were convicted for peaceful acts of free expression to sentences ranging from three years to nine years in prison, including prominent bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh (a.k.a Ba Sam) and Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (a.k.a Nguyen Ngoc Gia). Twelve more rights activists and bloggers including prominent lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, former political prisoners Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung, have been detained since 2015 pending investigation.

Some examples of current political prisoners and detainees include:

 

  • Prominent lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and his fellow activist Le Thu Ha were detained in December 2015. They are charged with article 88. Since Nguyen Van Dai’s arrest, his family and lawyers have reportedly been unable to meet him.
  • Labor activists Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung and Doan Huy Chuong are serving lengthy prison sentences for nine years and seven years, respectively, for allegedly helping to organize a wild cat strike at a shoe factory in Tra Vinh province in 2010.
  • Influential blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is serving a 16-year prison sentence for his writings on the Internet and attempts to form a group to promote democracy. In May 2016, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc went on a two-week hunger strike to protest rights violations in prison.
  • Religious activists Ngo Hao and Nguyen Cong Chinh are serving 15 and 11-year prison sentences respectively for their advocacy for freedom of religion. Prisoners reportedly assaulted Nguyen Cong Chinh while staff looked away. His family has been put under police intrusive surveillance and frequently faces harassment and intimidation.
  • Rights activists Ho Duc Hoa, Dang Xuan Dieu and Nguyen Dang Minh Man are serving lengthy prison sentences ranging from 8 to 13 years for allegedly being involved with a non-communist party.

 

Recommendations
Australia 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. Those with health problems should be released so that they can receive proper medical treatment. Some of the most urgent medical cases for immediate release are bloggers Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Dang Xuan Dieu, and Nguyen Huu Vinh (a.k.a Ba Sam), and religious activists Ngo Hao and Nguyen Cong Chinh.
  • 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.
  • Amend or repeal provisions in the penal code and other laws that criminalize peaceful dissent on the basis of imprecisely defined “national security” crimes.
  • 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).
  • As an immediate confidence-building measure, allow access to prisoners or detainees by families, legal counsel, and outside observers from Australia and international humanitarian and human rights groups.

 

2. Harassment, Violence and Restrictions on Activists and Dissidents

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.

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 on social media to attack and defame bloggers and activists.

In 2015, Human Rights Watch recorded at least 45 cases of assault against dissidents and human rights defenders, including beatings, threats, and property destruction. These cases include acts against 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. On November 22, 2015, the police of Dong Nai province detained and assaulted former political prisoner and labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh for helping workers at Yupoong Company to exercise their rights. No one involved in the assaults was held accountable.

Harassment and violence have continued in 2016. In February, a thug threw rocks at former political prisoner, Tran Minh Nhat, at his house in Lam Dong province causing a severe head injury. In June, a man in plain clothes attacked rights activist Nguyen Van Thanh at a café in Da Nang in broad daylight. These attacks appear to be carried out on official orders or with official acquiescence as the government finds ways other than widely condemned public trials to silence dissent.

The government has also prevented an increasing number of dissidents and human rights defenders from traveling abroad. Rights activists and bloggers such as Nguyen Quang A, Pham Doan Trang, Huynh Ngoc Chenh, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Kim Chi, Tran Bang, and many others were placed under house arrest or briefly detained so they could not attend certain meetings or events.

 

Recommendations

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Immediately end government-sponsored vigilantism.
  • Investigate all violent attacks against bloggers and activists and hold assailants accountable.
  • 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.
  • Permit activists to travel within the country and abroad freely.

 

3. Repression of Freedom of Religion
The government restricts religious practice through legislation, onerous registration requirements on “unofficial” religious groups, 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 deem contrary to the “national interest,” “public order,” or “national great unity.” Authorities frequently interfere with 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, the 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 November 2015, the ministry of interior submitted a new draft “Law on Belief and Religion” to the National Assembly. The new draft maintains mechanisms allowing authorities to persecute religious groups they dislike. For example, clause 5 of article 6 prohibits “the abuse of freedom of religion and beliefs to… sow division among the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order and social morale.”

“National great unity,” “national security,” and “social morale” are vague terms and have been arbitrarily used by the authorities to punish hundreds of peaceful bloggers and activists. The draft law requires religious groups to “have been granted a registration for religious activities by authoritative state office and have carried out stable religious activities for 10 years” before it can apply to be recognized by the state (article 18).

The new draft interferes with the internal affairs of religious groups, such as the requirement for religious dignitaries to be appointed (including one must “have the spirit of national unity and harmony” – article 32) or the requirement for religious education within religious institutions to include “Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law as the core subjects” (article 22). Like current regulations that curb the freedom of religion and belief, the draft requires religious groups to register with the government for everything they do, including annual activities, festivals, conferences, conventions, appointments, etc., and stipulates that authoritative offices must respond within a certain amount of time. However, the draft does not stipulate what happens if the authoritative offices fail to respond.

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 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 couple of years, 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, refused to register more than a handful as asylum seekers.

Recommendations
Australia 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). 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.

Recommendations
Australia should publicly and privately
:

  • 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.

 

5. Vietnamese Boat Returns

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, a total of eight individuals from the two boats have been convicted for “organizing for others to flee abroad illegally” under article 275 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. Each of the defendants received sentences ranging from two to three years in prison.

The Australian government has said that “any potential criminal investigations or proceedings for people smuggling related offences are a matter for the Vietnamese Government.”

But these individuals were not convicted of financially benefitting from illegally bringing people into another country – the definition of smuggling under international law. They were convicted for helping others leave an oppressive country. The right to leave one’s country is a bedrock right under international law.

Recommendations
Australia should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Ensure the safety of all returned Vietnamese migrants and asylum seekers.
  • Release the eight individuals convicted under article 275 and quash the convictions.

 

Human Rights Watch List of Current Political Prisoners

The following list only includes detained persons who have been convicted, not the significant number of detainees who have been arrested and are currently facing trial, nor cases of arrest or conviction not publicly known.

  1. A Jen, born 1984
  2. A Tik, born 1952
  3. Đinh Kữ, born 1972
  4. Thin, born 1979
  5. Gyưn, born 1980
  6. Nguyễn Đình Ngọc (a.k.a Nguyễn Ngọc Già), born 1966
  7. Ngô Thị Minh Ước, born 1959
  8. Nguyễn Thị Bé Hai, born 1958
  9. Nguyễn Thị Trí, born 1958
  10. Nguyễn Hữu Vinh (a.k.a Ba Sàm), born 1956
  11. Nguyễn Thị Minh Thúy, born 1980
  12. Nguyễn Văn Thông, born 1965
  13. Đỗ Đình Dũ, born 1959
  14. Kpuih Khuông
  15. Rmah Khil
  16. Rmah Bloanh
  17. A Kuin (a.k.a Bă Chăn), born 1974
  18. Ngư (a.k.a Bă Săn), born 1972
  19. Bùi Thị Minh Hằng, born 1964
  20. Nguyễn Văn Minh, born 1980
  21. Điểu B’ré (a.k.a Bạp Bum), born 1969
  22. Điểu By Ơ, born 1967
  23. Điểu Đong, born 1966
  24. Lý Văn Hầu
  25. Đinh Yum, born 1963
  26. Rơ Mah Plă (a.k.a Rmah Blă; a.k.a Ama Em), born 1968
  27. Siu Tinh (a.k.a Ama Khâm), born 1978
  28. Rưn
  29. Chi
  30. Đinh Lý
  31. Đinh Ngo
  32. Thạch Thươl, born 1985
  33. Liêu Ny, born 1986
  34. Ngô Hào, born 1948
  35. A Tách (a.k.a Bă Hlôl), born 1959
  36. Rung, born 1979
  37. Jơnh (a.k.a Chình), born 1952
  38. A Hyum (a.k.a Bă Kôl), born 1940
  39. Byưk, born 1945
  40. Đinh Lứ, born 1976
  41. Đinh Hrôn, born 1981
  42. Đinh Nguyên Kha, born 1988
  43. Phan Văn Thu, born 1948
  44. Lê Duy Lộc, born 1956
  45. Vương Tấn Sơn, born 1953
  46. Đoàn Đình Nam, born 1951
  47. Nguyễn Kỳ Lạc, born 1951
  48. Tạ Khu, born 1947
  49. Từ Thiện Lương, born 1950
  50. Võ Ngọc Cư, born 1951
  51. Võ Thành Lê, born 1955
  52. Võ Tiết, born 1952
  53. Lê Phúc, born 1951
  54. Đoàn Văn Cư, born 1962
  55. Nguyễn Dinh, born 1968
  56. Phan Thanh Ý, born 1948
  57. Đỗ Thị Hồng, born 1957
  58. Trần Phi Dũng, born 1966
  59. Lê Đức Động, born 1983
  60. Lê Trọng Cư, born 1966
  61. Lương Nhật Quang, born 1987
  62. Nguyễn Thái Bình, born 1986
  63. Trần Quân, born 1984
  64. Phan Thanh Tường, born 1987
  65. Bùi Văn Trung, born 1964
  66. Hồ Đức Hòa, born 1974
  67. Đặng Xuân Diệu, born 1979
  68. Nguyễn Đặng Minh Mẫn, born 1985
  69. Tráng A Chớ, born 1985
  70. Trần Vũ Anh Bình, born 1974
  71. Nguyễn Kim Nhàn, born 1949
  72. Kpuil Mel
  73. Kpuil Lễ
  74. Phan Ngọc Tuấn, born 1959
  75. Nay Y Nga, born 1979
  76. Nguyễn Công Chính (a.k.a Nguyễn Thành Long), born 1969
  77. Siu Thái (a.k.a Ama Thương), born 1978
  78. Nguyễn Ngọc Cường, born 1956
  79. Phạm Thị Phượng, born 1945
  80. Trần Thị Thúy, born 1971
  81. Phạm Văn Thông, born 1962
  82. Siu Hlom, born 1967
  83. Siu Nheo, born 1955
  84. Siu Brơm, born 1967
  85. Rah Lan Mlih, born 1966
  86. Rơ Mah Pró, born 1964
  87. Rah Lan Blom, born 1976
  88. Kpă Sinh, born 1959
  89. Rơ Mah Klít, born 1946
  90. Phùng Lâm, born 1966
  91. Nguyễn Hoàng Quốc Hùng, born 1981
  92. Đoàn Huy Chương, born 1985
  93. Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, born 1966
  94. Rmah Hlach (a.k.a Ama Blut), born 1968
  95. Siu Kơch (a.k.a Ama Liên), born 1985
  96. Nhi (a.k.a Bă Tiêm), born 1958
  97. AmLinh (a.k.a Bả Blưng), born 1943
  98.  Yưh (a.k.a Bă Nar), born 1962
  99.  Siu Ben (a.k.a Ama Yôn)
  100. Rơ Lan Jú (a.k.a Ama Suit)
  101. Nơh, born 1959
  102. Rôh, born 1962
  103. Pinh, born 1967
  104. Rơ Mah Then, born 1985
  105. Siu Wiu
  106. Brong, born 1964
  107. Y Kur BĐáp
  108. Y Jim Êban