Supporters hold signs with names of jailed activists at an event held to call for their release in Hanoi, Vietnam, August 27, 2017.

© 2017 Kham/Reuters

(New York) – Vietnam’s repression of human rights and democracy activists increased significantly in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. Despite this, most of Vietnam’s donors continued to prioritize trade over rights.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

After the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, Vietnamese authorities engaged in a renewed crackdown against rights activism, arresting dozens of bloggers and activists and sentencing many to long prison terms. Basic rights including freedom of speech, assembly, association, movement, and religion remain severely restricted in Vietnam’s one-party state. State-sanctioned thugs often attacked dissidents, while police brutality, including deaths in police custody, remains a serious problem.

“During the TPP negotiations, Vietnamese authorities knew it looked terrible to arrest activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “But they have dropped their mask since the Trump administration pulled out of the TPP, and started handing out heavy prison sentences to citizens peacefully calling for democracy and an end to one-party rule.”

In 2017, at least 24 people were convicted for their writings and advocacy on democracy and human rights. Those convicted include bloggers Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (known as “Mother Mushroom”), sentenced to ten years in prison; Tran Thi Nga, sentenced to nine years; Phan Kim Khanh, sentenced to six years; and Nguyen Van Hoa, sentenced to seven years.

Within the past 14 months, the police have arrested at least 28 people for sweeping “national security” offenses that are used to punish critical speech and peaceful activism, including former political prisoners Nguyen Bac Truyen, Truong Minh Duc, Nguyen Van Tuc, Nguyen Trung Ton, and Pham Van Troi. Blogger Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha remain in police custody since December 2015 without trial. The initial charge against them was propaganda against the state. In July 2017, it was changed to subversion.

The Communist Party of Vietnam presides over a one-party state that severely limits basic freedoms and punishes dissent. At least 119 people are currently serving lengthy prison terms for expressing critical views of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups disapproved of by the authorities, or joining civil or political organizations that the ruling party deems to be threats to its monopoly on power.

Vietnam bans independent political parties, labor unions, and human rights organizations. Religious groups can only operate under government management. The police use various means to repress religious groups that operate outside of official, government-registered, and government-controlled religious institutions, including constant surveillance, intimidation, harassment, forced denunciation, public criticism, and sometimes excessive force.

Rights bloggers and activists are subject to constant harassment, intrusive surveillance, detention, bullying interrogation, and the application of pressure on employers, landlords, and family members. Police place them under extrajudicial house arrest or in brief detention so they cannot participate in public events such as pro-environment protests, human rights discussions, or meetings with foreign diplomats, or attend trials of fellow activists. The authorities also prohibit rights activists and bloggers from traveling abroad, sometimes citing vague national security reasons. In June, Vietnam stripped former political prisoner Pham Minh Hoang of his Vietnamese citizenship and deported him to France.

Physical assaults against rights bloggers and campaigners occur frequently. Many victims have reported that unknown men in civilian clothes beat them in the presence of uniformed police – who do nothing to intervene. Police often subject rights campaigners to lengthy bullying interrogation sessions and detain them for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits.

“Vietnamese rights bloggers and activists frequently risk their personal freedom, safety, and even lives to promote basic civil, political, and human rights,” Adams said. “International trade partners and donors need to insist on human rights improvements as an integral part of all deals and assistance to the country.”