Photos of Nguyen Van Duc Do (right), wearing a human rights hat, and Luu Van Vinh (left), at a pro-environment protest carrying a sign that reads, "Return Clean Sea to the People".  

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Vietnam should drop politically motivated charges against five pro-democracy campaigners from a political group that challenges the Communist Party of Vietnam’s monopoly on power, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately release them without conditions.

Authorities arrested the five – Luu Van Vinh, Nguyen Van Duc Do, Phan Trung, Tu Cong Nghia, and Nguyen Quoc Hoan – in November 2016 for their alleged affiliation with the Vietnam National Self-Determination Coalition, an independent political group. Police charged them under article 79 of the 1999 penal code with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration.” The People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City is scheduled to hear their cases on October 5, 2018.

“This prosecution shows there is no end in sight when it comes to the government stamping down on calls for political pluralism, democracy, or respect for rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These five advocates are heading to prison for a long time simply for daring to criticize the Communist Party.”

Luu Van Vinh, 51, frequently participated in anti-China protests and pro-environment demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City. He attended meetings with activists to discuss human rights issues. In April 2015, police detained him for more than 12 hours after he visited the children of land rights petitioners who were serving time in prison for throwing acid at police who evicted them from their home in Long An province.

In July 2016, Luu Van Vinh announced the formation of the coalition. The announcement asserted that political parties and civil society groups both inside and outside of Vietnam need to join together to provide a counterpoint to the Communist Party’s views.

Police arrested Luu Van Vinh on November 6, 2016 and charged him under article 79 of the 1999 penal code. Doan Minh Tuan, a coalition member who later fled and sought asylum in Thailand, told a reporter at Vietnam Sydney Radio that he was visiting Luu Van Vinh that morning and witnessed the arrest. Security agents in civilian clothes burst into the house and detained them without showing any arrest warrants. During the arrest, police beat them both, and then took them to a police headquarters, which they couldn’t identify, for interrogation.

Security agents took Luu Van Vinh back to his house that afternoon and read him the arrest warrant. Doan Minh Tuan said he was detained for three days, then released and put under intrusive surveillance. During the next four months, police summoned Doan Minh Tuan and interrogated him many times, pressuring him to admit guilt and report on Luu Van Vinh. Doan Minh Tuan fled to Cambodia and then to Thailand in April 2017.

In May 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion that the arrest of Luu Van Vinh was arbitrary. It “considers that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, in particular the risk of harm to Mr. Vinh’s health, the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Vinh immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.”

Nguyen Van Duc Do, 43, another of those on trial, was also arrested on November 6, 2016 in Ho Chi Minh City for alleged involvement with the coalition. Like Luu Van Vinh, Nguyen Van Duc Do participated in human rights-related events and pro-environment protests. He also joined labor rights activists to campaign for workers’ interests. An anonymous family member told a reporter at Cali Today News that upon arrest, Nguyen Van Duc Do “demanded to know the reason for his arrest and to allow the people to witness the arrest warrant being read, but the police did not accept his request. They restrained Do and beat him. They beat Do so much that blood spilled out from his eyes, nose, and ears.”

Two other people, Do Phi Truong and Mac Van Phi, reported that police detained, beat, and interrogated them in November 2016 about their connection with the coalition.

Little is known about three other people, who were also arrested in November 2016 for alleged involvement with the coalition, to be tried with Luu Van Vinh and Nguyen Van Duc Do: Phan Trung (also known as Venerable Nhat Hue), 54; Nguyen Quoc Hoan, 41; and Tu Cong Nghia, 25.

Article 4 of Vietnam’s Constitution stipulates that the Communist Party of Vietnam is the leading force of the State and society, but it does not prohibit the formation of other political entities. However, the authorities regularly suppress attempts to form or join non-communist political groups or parties.

“The reality is those in power in Vietnam place the interests of the Communist Party above all, including the law, the constitution, and the people,” Robertson said. “This government has a long history of crushing any sort of dissent and continues to be one of the most intolerant governments in the region.”