Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing preparations for the forthcoming 15th Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, scheduled to be held in Hanoi in August 2018.

Since the last bilateral human rights dialogue with Australia in August 2017, Australia and Vietnam have upgraded ties with a Strategic Partnership. Unfortunately, the joint statement[1] announcing the strategic partnership makes no reference to human rights except for simply mentioning the annual dialogue. This was a missed opportunity to hold the Vietnamese government to account on human rights violations. Human rights should not only be the subject of annual dialogues, but need to be front and center of every discussion that senior Australian officials have with officials from Vietnam.

The government of Vietnam has shown no interest in improving its human rights record. What small progress was made, in part because of United States pressure related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, has evaporated as the Trump administration fails to prioritize human rights. In that vacuum, and given an ever-assertive China in the region, it is even more important that middle powers like Australia speak up on human rights violations in Vietnam.

Vietnam continues to restrict basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and religion. It owns and controls all media in the country, blocks or shuts down critical websites, and prosecutes those using social media to criticize the government and ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). The CPV monopolizes the leadership of all public institutions and uses them to maintain its hold on power. Since the CPV came to power in 1954, it has never allowed free and fair elections. Vietnam’s National Assembly is almost entirely comprised of CPV members selected by the party itself. The courts and all ministries are under CPV control. Independent trade unions are prohibited and social organizations, religious groups, and civil society are tightly regulated.

The authorities use various means to curb political and rights activism, including physical and psychological harassment, police surveillance, extra-judicial house arrest, arbitrary prohibitions on travel abroad and the application of pressure on employers, landlords and family members of activists. Police often subject rights campaigners to lengthy, bullying interrogation sessions. Authorities 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 often beat suspects to elicit confessions, and sometimes respond to public protests with excessive use of force.

Human Rights Watch recommends that Australia focus on political prisoners and detainees and examine four key priority areas regarding the human rights situation in Vietnam: repression of freedom of speech, association, assembly and movement; repression of freedom of information; repression of the right to freely practice religion; and police brutality.
 

1. Political Prisoners and Detainees

Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its penal code and other laws to imprison political and religious activists. These include “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” (article 109), “undermining the unity policy” (article 116), “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 117), and “disrupting security” (article 118). Vietnam also uses other articles in the penal code to target rights campaigners, including “abusing the rights to democracy and freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations, individuals” (article 331) and “disrupting public order” (article 318).

During the first six months of 2018 alone, the government convicted and imprisoned at least 26 rights bloggers and activists under various abusive laws, including blogger Ho Van Hai[2] (also known as Dr. Ho Hai), rights campaigners Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Pham Van Troi and Tran Hoang Phuc, pro-democracy advocates Nguyen Viet Dung and Nguyen Van Oai,[3] and Hoa Hao Buddhist activists Bui Van Trung and Bui Van Tham.[4] As of June 2018, Human Rights Watch documents at least 138 people imprisoned for expressing critical views of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups not approved by the authorities, or joining civil or political organizations that the CPV deems to be a threat to its monopoly on power.

Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code stipulates that the Procurator of the People’s Supreme Procuracy can decide to hold a suspect for violation of national security in detention until investigation is concluded (article 173, clause 5), and can restrict the detainee’s access to legal counsel until after investigation is concluded (article 74). In practice, this means that those who are suspected of violating national security can be and are held in police custody without access to a lawyer as long as the authorities see fit. Police arrested prominent rights activist Nguyen Van Dai[5] and his colleague Le Thu Ha in December 2015 and detained them for almost 2 years without allowing them access to lawyers until late 2017. In April 2018, the two were convicted and sent to 15 years and 9 years in prison respectively. In large part due to international pressure, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha were sent to exile in Germany two months later. As of June 2018, Human Rights Watch documents at least 16 rights activists still held in police custody without trial, some since November 2016 like Nguyen Van Duc Do and Luu Van Vinh.

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

  • Immediately 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.
  • Repeal penal code articles 109, 116, 117, 118 and 331 and bring its penal code in conformity with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
  • Repeal article 74 and article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code and allow all people detained for any alleged violations to have immediate access to legal counsel upon being arrested.
  • As an immediate confidence-building measure, allow access to prisoners and detainees by families, legal counsel, and outside observers from Australia and international humanitarian and human rights groups.

Australia 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 blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh[6] (also known as Mother Mushroom), pro-democracy activists Nguyen Van Tuc,[7] Tran Anh Kim,[8] and Ho Duc Hoa,[9] and religious activist Ngo Hao.[10]
 

2. Repression of Freedom of Speech, Association, Assembly, and Movement

Vietnam continues to prohibit the establishment or operation of independent labor unions, human rights organizations, and political parties. Independent union organizers face harassment, intimidation, and retaliation. The authorities convicted and sentenced labor activists Truong Minh Duc to 12 years in prison in April and Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in February 2018.

Authorities require approval for public gatherings and systematically refuse permission for meetings, marches, or public assemblies they deem to be politically unacceptable. In June 2018, many people were reportedly harassed, detained and beaten for participating in demonstrations[11] throughout Vietnam to protest against the draft law on special economic zones.

Physical assaults against rights bloggers and campaigners continued to occur frequently.

On March 14, 2018, rights activist Truong Van Dung reported that he was beaten by security agents in civilian clothes at the headquarter of the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi for urging the release of activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh. Police detained Nguyen earlier for participating in a commemoration of Vietnamese soldiers.

On April 11, 2018, a man in civilian clothes reportedly beat former political prisoner Truong Anh Kim outside his house in Lam Dong province and injured him on the head. In the evening of June 26, 2018, unidentified men threw rocks and a hand-made gasoline device into the house of labor activist and former political prisoner Do Thi Minh Hanh in Lam Dong province. The next morning, fellow activists Dinh Van Hai and Vu Tien Chi went to visit Do Thi Minh Hanh to show support. Shortly after leaving her house, two men in civilian clothes attacked them with wooden sticks. Dinh Van Hai was hospitalized with multiple injuries. The thugs broke two ribs, a bone in his right hand, and his left shoulder.

Domestic restriction of movement is used to prevent bloggers and activists from participating in public events such as pro-environment protests, human rights discussions or events, or attending trials of fellow activists. On June 15, 2018, rights activist Pham Le Vuong Cac[12] flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi to attend an exam. The police detained him at the airport and interrogated him for several hours and forced him to fly back to Ho Chi Minh City[13] for fear that he might stir up an anti-China protest in Hanoi that weekend. The next day, police in Ho Chi Minh City barred him from leaving his house. Also on June 16, 2018, unknown men locked the gate[14] outside the apartment of former political prisoner Le Thi Cong Nhan[15] in Hanoi to prevent her and her husband, rights activist Ngo Duy Quyen,[16] from joining an anti-China protest. On June 26, 2018, police in Ho Chi Minh City prohibited former political prisoners Le Cong Dinh[17] and Pham Ba Hai[18] from leaving their houses to join a gathering[19] to celebrate the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

Police also prevent rights campaigners from travelling abroad, sometimes citing vague national security reasons. In March 2018, police at Tan Son Nhat airport prevented dissident poet Bui Minh Quoc from leaving for a personal trip[20] to the US. In May 2018, police at Bo Y border gate barred rights activist Father Dinh Huu Thoai[21] from leaving for a personal trip to the US. Also in May 2018, police at Tan Son Nhat airport barred labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh from leaving for a personal trip[22] to Germany. In June 2018, police at Tan Son Nhat airport prohibited rights activist Father Nguyen Duy Tan from leaving for a tourist trip to Malaysia.[23]

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

  • 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.
  • Immediately end restriction of movement of rights bloggers and activists, both within, to and from Vietnam.
  • Bring legislation regulating public gatherings and demonstrations into conformity with the rights of free assembly and association in articles 21 and 22 of 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 CPV 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.
     
3. Repression of Freedom of Information

The Vietnamese government continues to prohibit independent or privately-owned media outlets to operate. It exerts strict control over radio and TV stations and printed publications. Criminal penalties apply to those who disseminate materials deemed to oppose the government, threaten national security, reveal state secrets or promote “reactionary” ideas. The authorities block access to politically sensitive websites and frequently attempt to shut down blogs, or require internet service providers to remove content or social media accounts arbitrarily deemed politically unacceptable.

In June 2018, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed an overly broad and vague cyber security lawthat gives authorities wide discretion to determine when expression must be censored as “illegal.”[24] Under this new law, which will come into effect in January 2019, service providers must take down offending content within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Ministry of Information and Communications or Ministry of Public Security. Requirements that internet companies store data locally, “verify” user information, and disclose user data to authorities without requiring a court order also threaten the right to privacy and could facilitate further suppression of online dissent or activism.

The Vietnamese authorities have recently stepped up their crackdown against online dissidents and rights activists.[25] In July 2017, the information and communications minister, Truong Minh Tuan, reported that “Google and Facebook had removed 3,367 clips with bad and poisonous content after being requested to do so by the Ministry of Information and Communications. Facebook removed more than 600 accounts that have violating content.”[26]

The Vietnamese government has mobilized a massive army of paid “collaborators on social opinions” (Cong tac vien du luan xa hoi), often referred to as “public opinion shapers” (du luan vien), whose job is to promote official propaganda and to combat views deemed hostile to the ruling party and government. Separately, Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia reported[27] in December 2017 that Force 47[28] – a military task force founded in early 2016 to combat online opinions critical of the regime – has over 10,000 members “ready to combat erroneous views every hour, minute and second of the day.”

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

  • Bring media 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.
  • Revise the Law on Cyber Security and bring it into compliance with international human rights standards, including the ICCPR.
     
4. Repression of the Right to Freely Practice 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 unity.”

The police monitor, harass, and sometimes violently crack down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions. Unrecognized branches of the Cao Dai church, Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant and Catholic house churches, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam face constant surveillance, harassment, and intimidation. Followers of independent religious groups are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment. In January and February 2018, authorities tried and convicted at least 10 independent Hoa Hao Buddhist activists, sentencing them to many years in prison.

On June 22, 2018, men in civilian clothes broke into the house of Cao Dai religious activist Hua Phi in Lam Dong province, beat him, and cut off his beard. Hua Phi told a reporter at Radio Free Asia that he thought the attack may have been related to an invitation that he received to meet Australian diplomats on June 25 in Ho Chi Minh City in preparation for the upcoming human rights dialogue.

Montagnards in the Central Highlands are subjected to constant surveillance and other forms of intimidation, public criticism, arbitrary arrest, and mistreatment in security force custody.[29] In detention, the authorities question them about their religious and political activities and any efforts to flee Vietnam.

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, forced denunciation of faith, 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 ICCPR to which Vietnam and Australia 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.
     
5. Police Brutality

Police throughout Vietnam have been abusing people in their custody,[30] in some cases leading to death. In many of these cases, those killed were being held for minor infractions. A number of survivors said police beat them to extract confessions, sometimes for crimes they maintained they did not commit. Although the government promised improvements after Human Rights Watch published its findings of police brutality in September 2014,[31] it appears that officers who have committed serious, even lethal, transgressions have only rarely faced the serious consequences the law requires.

In August 2017, Tran Anh Doanh reported[32] that the police of Son Tay town (Hanoi) arrested him for suspected theft. During several hours of detention, the police allegedly beat him severely and forced him to admit guilt. In September 2017, Vo Tan Minh (arrested in April 2017 for possessing a small amount of heroin) died in the custody of the police of Phan Rang-Thap Cham[33] (Ninh Thuan province). According to his family, there were bruises on his back, legs, and arms. The police initially alleged that Vo Tan Minh was involved in a fight, but later suspended five police officers and opened a case of “using corporal punishment.”

In November 2017, police in Tien Giang province arrested 29 year old Nguyen Ngoc Nhan for allegedly possessing some illegal drugs. He died within a couple of hours later in police custody. The police claimed that he died from a heart attack, but his family provided state media photos of the victim with many bruises all over his body.[34]

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

  • 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 must be present at all interrogation sessions between police and detainees.

[1] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government, “Joint Statement on the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership between Australia and Vietnam,” March 15, 2018, http://dfat.gov.au/geo/vietnam/Pages/joint-statement-on-the-establishmen... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[2] “Free Vietnam’s Political Prisoners!” Human Rights Watch interactive, November 3, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2017/11/03/free-vietnams-po....

[3] “Vietnam: Drop Charges Against Human Rights Defenders,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 4, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/04/vietnam-drop-charges-against-human-r....

[4] “Vietnam: End Repression Against Religious Activists,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 8, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/08/vietnam-end-repression-against-relig....

[5] “Vietnam: Drop Charges Against Human Rights Defenders,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 4, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/04/vietnam-drop-charges-against-human-r....

[6] “Vietnam: Drop Charges Against ‘Mother Mushroom,’” Human Rights Watch news release, November 30, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/11/30/vietnam-drop-charges-against-mother-....

[7] “Vietnam: Renewed Crackdown on Rights Bloggers, Activists,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 18, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/18/vietnam-renewed-crackdown-rights-blo....

[8] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), Vietnam chapter, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/vietnam.

[9] “Free Vietnam’s Political Prisoners!” Human Rights Watch interactive, November 3, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2017/11/03/free-vietnams-po....

[10] Ibid.

[11]“Vietnam: Investigate Police Response to Mass Protests,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 15, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/15/vietnam-investigate-police-response-....

[12] “Vietnam: Escalating Persecution of Bloggers,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 19, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/19/vietnam-escalating-persecution-bloggers.

[13] Pham Le Vuong, Facebook post, June 16, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/cui.cac/posts/10209052193422370

[14] Ngô Duy Quyền, Facebook post, June 17, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/alfonsongoduyquyen/posts/1869322989755461 (accessed July 9, 2018).

[15] “Vietnam: Democracy Activists Should be Released,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 28, 2007, https://www.hrw.org/news/2007/11/28/vietnam-democracy-activists-should-b....

[16]“Vietnam: Plainclothes Agents Target Rights Campaigners,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 25, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/25/vietnam-plainclothes-agents-target-r....

[17] “Vietnam: Free Prominent Rights Lawyer Le Cong Dinh,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 16, 2009, https://www.hrw.org/news/2009/06/16/vietnam-free-prominent-rights-lawyer....

[18]“Vietnam: Fee Political and Religious Detainees,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 7, 2011, https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/04/07/vietnam-free-political-and-religious....

[19] Hai Ba Pham, Facebook post, June 26, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/trangthienlong/posts/1596430080479280 (accessed July 9, 2018).

[20] VOA Vietnamese, “Bui Minh Quoc: ‘I did not do anything to be put on the exit list,’” March 22, 2018, https://www.voatiengviet.com/a/bui-minh-quoc-toi-cha-lam-gi-de-bi-dua-va... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[21] VOA Vietnamese, “Fr. Dinh Huu Thoai Was Banned from Exiting for Support of the South Vietnamese Cavalry,” May 15, 2018, https://www.voatiengviet.com/a/lm-dinh-huu-thoai-bi-cam-xuat-canh-vi-ho-... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[22] Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, “Activist Do Thi Minh Hanh is prohibited from exiting,” May 18, 2018, https://www.sbtn.tv/nha-hoat-dong-do-thi-minh-hanh-bi-cam-xuat-canh/ (accessed July 9, 2018).

[23] Radio Free Asia, “Vietnam Bars Dissident Priest from Travelling Abroad,” June 13, 2018, https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/vietnam-bars-dissident-p... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[24] “Vietnam: Withdraw Problematic Cyber Security Law,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 7, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/07/vietnam-withdraw-problematic-cyber-s....

[25] “Vietnam: Stop Cyber Attacks Against Online Critics,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 26, 2010, https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/05/26/vietnam-stop-cyber-attacks-against-o....

[26] Báo Mới, “Google and Facebook Continue to Remove, Prevent Malicious Information,” July 14, 2018, https://baomoi.com/google-va-facebook-tiep-tuc-go-bo-ngan-chan-thong-tin... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[27] Tuổi Trẻ Online, “More Than 10,000 People in ‘Force 47’ Fight Online,” December 25, 2017, https://tuoitre.vn/hon-10-000-nguoi-trong-luc-luong-47-dau-tranh-tren-ma... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[28] The Wall Street Journal, “Introducing Force 47, Vietnam’s New Weapon Against Online Dissent,” December 31, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/introducing-force-47-vietnams-new-weapon-ag... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[29] Human Rights Watch, Persecuting ‘Evil Way’ Religion” Abuses against Montagnards in Vietnam (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2015), https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/06/26/persecuting-evil-way-religion/abus....

[30] “Vietnam: Pervasive Deaths, Injuries in Police Custody,” Human Rights Watch press release, September 15, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/15/vietnam-pervasive-deaths-injuries-po....

[31] Human Rights Watch, Public Insecurity: Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality in Vietnam (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2014), https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/09/16/public-insecurity/deaths-custody-a....

[32] Ngày Nay, “Hanoi: Emergency Hospital After the Police Invited to Work,” August 18, 2018, https://ngaynay.vn/xa-hoi/ha-noi-nhap-vien-cap-cuu-sau-khi-cong-an-moi-l... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[33] Tuổi Trẻ Online, “Suspended the Work of 5,” September 19, 2017, https://tuoitre.vn/vu-bi-can-chet-sau-cuoc-danh-nhau-trong-khi-bi-tam-gi... (accessed July 9, 2018).

[34] Người lao động, “Death After Being Arrested by Police,” November 17, 2017, https://nld.com.vn/phap-luat/tu-vong-sau-khi-bi-cong-an-bat-201711171522... (accessed July 9, 2018).