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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc walk to a press briefing at the Government Office in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, August 23, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Duc Thanh
(Sydney) – The Australian government should press the Vietnam government to respect human rights at the 16th Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue on August 29, 2019, in Canberra, Human Rights Watch said today.

Australia’s bilateral relationship with Vietnam has deepened significantly, upgrading to a strategic partnership in 2018. In August 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Hanoi, but failed to address human rights concerns publicly during his visit.

In a June submission, Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to use the dialogue to improve Vietnam’s poor human rights record, including the systematic suppression of freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion. Australia should also press the government of Vietnam to immediately release all political prisoners, and to revise its problematic cybersecurity law.

“Australia’s close ties with Vietnam mean the Australian government has a responsibility to speak out publicly on Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The crackdown on basic rights in Vietnam is escalating, with more political prisoners being unjustly detained for longer terms.”

As of August, Human Rights Watch has documented that at least 131 people are behind bars in Vietnam for exercising their basic rights. The Vietnamese government should immediately release all these political prisoners and detainees. Some of the most urgent cases include people with serious health conditions who require medical assistance, including Ngo Hao, a religious activist; Nguyen Trung Ton, a rights campaigner; and Nguyen Van Tuc and Ho Duc Hoa, pro-democracy activists.

The Vietnamese government has detained Chau Van Kham, an Australian citizen and pro-democracy activist, since January. He is being investigated for alleged offenses under Vietnam’s sweeping national security laws, including attempting to “overthrow the state.” Under Vietnam’s criminal procedure code, he will be allowed to have a defense lawyer only after the police say the investigation is concluded.

“Australia should be publicly calling for the immediate release of Chau Van Kham, an Australian citizen, and all other political prisoners who have been unjustly jailed in Vietnam,” Pearson said. “Australia should press Vietnam to change its rights-violating criminal procedure code so that all criminal detainees have prompt access to legal counsel as international law requires.”

Activists and bloggers in Vietnam face frequent physical assaults by official or government- connected thugs, who are not punished for these attacks. In January, unidentified men abducted an anti-corruption campaigner, Ha Van Nam, and drove him around in a van, where they covered his head and beat him repeatedly, eventually leaving him outside a hospital with two broken ribs.

In July, a group of rights activists accompanied Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh, the wife of Truong Minh Duc, a political prisoner, to Prison No. 6 in Thanh Chuong district, Nghe An province, to show their support for political prisoners who were on a hunger strike to protest the violation of their rights. When the visitors got close to the prison, a large group of men in civilian clothes attacked them with sticks and helmets, broke their phones, and robbed them. Many people in the group were injured, including a prominent blogger, Huynh Ngoc Chenh, and his wife, Nguyen Thuy Hanh, a human rights activist.

Online repression is on the rise in Vietnam. Vietnam’s problematic cybersecurity law went into effect in January. This overly broad and vague law gives the authorities wide discretion to censor free expression and requires service providers to take down content the authorities consider offensive within 24 hours of receiving the request.

In August, Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung claimed that Facebook had complied with “70 to 75 percent” of the government’s requests to restrict content, up from “about 30 percent” previously. Among the materials Facebook removed, according to the ministry, were “more than 200 links to articles with content opposing the Party and the State.”

The minister also claimed that Google complies with “80 to 85 percent” of its requests to restrict content on YouTube and other Google services – up from “60 percent” previously.

It is unclear how the ministry arrived at these figures, or when the social media giants’ compliance rate began to increase. The ministry did not disclose the legal bases for these requests.

The ministry said it has asked Facebook to limit live-streaming capabilities on its platforms to accounts that it has authenticated. It is unclear how Facebook will be expected to conduct such authentication, or what criteria authenticated accounts would have to satisfy. The ministry also said that it told the company to “pre-censor” online content and remove ads “that spread fake news related to political issues upon request from the government.”

When asked how it would respond to these requests, Facebook stated that its standards relating to its livestream and other services “are global.” The process for taking down content, Facebook added, is the “same in Vietnam as it is around the world.” Reported content is first reviewed against its Community Standards; if it passes muster, the company will assess whether the government request is legally valid.

Human Rights Watch also contacted Google for comment on the ministry’s allegations, but it had not responded at the time of publication.

“Vietnam’s increasingly aggressive approach to online censorship, including its enforcement of the cybersecurity law, an attempt to silence many online critical voices and unduly restrict freedom of expression in the country are worrisome,” Pearson said. “Australia should press Vietnam to amend this law and to end the government’s systemic repression of dissidents and peaceful activists.”

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