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

(Sydney) – The Australian government should press the Vietnamese government to release political prisoners and detainees; end repression of free speech, association, and assembly; and take steps to end police brutality.

The 15th Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue is scheduled to be held on August 28, 2018, in Hanoi.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen a surge in lengthy prison sentences handed down to people peacefully calling for democracy and an end to one-party rule in Vietnam,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Australia should pressure Vietnam to set concrete and measurable benchmarks to improve its abysmal rights record.”

During the first eight months of 2018, Vietnam convicted at least 28 rights activists and bloggers, up from 24 in all of 2017.

In a submission to the Australian government in July, Human Rights Watch recommended that Australia focus on securing the release of political prisoners and detainees in Vietnam and on pressing the government to call a halt to police brutality. Human Rights Watch also said that Australia should press Vietnam to end its systematic curtailment of basic civil and political rights, including the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion.
 
In separate trials in April, Communist Party-controlled courts sentenced eight members of the Brotherhood for Democracy, many of them formerly jailed dissidents, to between 7 and 15 years in prison. They are Nguyen Van Dai, Nguyen Trung Ton, Truong Minh Duc, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Le Thu Ha, Pham Van Troi, Nguyen Van Tuc, and Tran Thi Xuan. Largely under international pressure, in June the authorities allowed Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha to leave for exile in Germany. The authorities sentenced religious activist Dinh Diem to 16 years in prison in July, and environmental activist Le Dinh Luong to 20 years in August.

“Many Vietnamese are detained or imprisoned for exercising basic rights that Australians take for granted,” Pearson said. “The Australian government should publicly and privately press Vietnamese leaders to immediately release anyone held on politically motivated charges.”

In June, demonstrations broke out across the country against the government’s draft laws on special economic zones and cybersecurity. Security forces beat and arrested many protesters.

Activists and bloggers are frequent victims of assault. In Lam Dong province in June, men in civilian clothes broke into the house of an activist from the Cao Dai religious group, Hua Phi, 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 he received to meet with Australian diplomats on June 25 in Ho Chi Minh City in preparation for the human rights dialogue.

Many Vietnamese are detained or imprisoned for exercising basic rights that Australians take for granted.

Elaine Pearson

Australia Director

In June and July, also in Lam Dong province, unidentified men threw rocks and a handmade incendiary device into the house of a labor activist and former political prisoner, Do Thi Minh Hanh. In August, security agents brutally beat Pham Doan Trang, a blogger; Nguyen Tin, a singer; and Nguyen Dang Cao Dai, a rights activists, after a raid on a concert in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese government also stepped up its online repression. In June, the National Assembly passed a highly problematic law on cybersecurity that has been widely criticized in Vietnam and internationally. Under the new law, which will go 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.

Internet companies are also required to store data locally, verify user information, and disclose user data to authorities on demand without a court order, all of which threaten the right to privacy and could facilitate further suppression of online dissent or activism.

In light of Australia’s Trans-Pacific Partnership with Vietnam – an agreement that includes provisions for protecting personal information – the Australian government should raise concerns about the harmful effects of the cybersecurity law and urge Vietnam to postpone its implementation.

In March, Australia and Vietnam upgraded ties under a new strategic partnership, but the joint statement makes no reference to human rights, except for simply mentioning the annual dialogue.

“Given Vietnam’s long and abysmal rights record, Australia should not reward Vietnam with closer cooperation and trade deals unless there are measurable gains in human rights,” Pearson said. “Human rights should not just be relegated to annual closed door dialogues, but should be front and center of every discussion that senior Australian officials have with officials from Vietnam.”