Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing preparations for the forthcoming 16th Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, scheduled to be held in Canberra in August 2019.

Australia’s bilateral relationship with Vietnam has deepened significantly in recent years since the signing of the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement in 2009, and upgrading to a Strategic Partnership in 2018. At the same time, Vietnam’s human rights record worsened since 2017 as the authorities imprison more dissidents for longer prison terms and passed new draconian laws. Australia’s close ties with Vietnam give the government an opportunity and responsibility to speak out on Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record, and in particular, the systematic suppression of freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion in Vietnam.

The Communist Party of Vietnam monopolizes power through the government, controls all major political and social organizations, and punishes people who dare to criticize or challenge its rule. Basic civil and political rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly are severely restricted. Independent media do not exist as the government controls TV, radio, newspapers, and other publications. Vietnam prohibits the formation of independent labor unions, political associations, and human rights organizations. Police frequently use excessive force to disperse peaceful public protests that criticize the government. Activists questioning government policies or projects, or seeking to defend local resources or land, face daily harassment, intrusive surveillance, house arrest, travel bans, arbitrary detention, and abusive interrogation. Plainclothes assailants, apparently coordinating with police, have launched physical assaults against activists with impunity. Police subject dissidents to lengthy and bullying interrogations, and detain them incommunicado for months without access to legal counsel. Communist Party-controlled courts receive instructions on how to rule in criminal cases, and have issued increasingly harsh prison sentences for activists convicted on bogus national security charges.

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.

Vietnam’s highly problematic law on cybersecurity went into effect in January 2019 in the face of widespread domestic and international criticism. Under this law, service providers must take down content that offends the authorities within 24 hours of receiving their request, tightening already-severe restrictions on access to information. 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 reprisals against dissenters and activists.

The government of Vietnam routinely ignores calls from domestic and international quarters and shows little interest in improving its human rights record. The small progress that was made a few years ago, in part because of United States pressure related to the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiation, has evaporated as the Trump administration has not made the protection of human rights a priority. In that vacuum, it is even more important that Australia speaks up on human rights violations in Vietnam and presses the country to end its abusive practices.

Human Rights Watch recommends that Australia focuses on four priority areas: 1) political prisoners and detainees; 2) repression of freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement; 3) repression of freedom of information; and 4) repression of the right to freely practice religion.

1. Political Prisoners and Detainees

As of June 2019, Human Rights Watch documents at least 133 people are behind bars for exercising basic rights. During the first five months of 2019, the authorities convicted at least eight people for criticizing the government or joining unapproved religious groups and sentenced them to between two to ten years of imprisonment. The police also arrested at least 15 other people on politically motivated pretexts.

Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its penal code 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).

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. Le Dinh Luong, an environmental activist, was arrested in July 2017 and charged with “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” He was denied access to his defense lawyer until July 2018, and a month later was sentenced to 20 years in prison after an unfair trial.

Recommendations

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 or amend penal code articles 109, 116, 117, 118 and 331 to bring its penal code in conformity with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
  • Repeal or amend article 74 and article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code and allow all people detained for any alleged violations, including national security offenses, 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 as well as 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:

  • Religious activist Ngo Hao, 71, who was convicted in September 2013 by the People’s Court of Phu Yen province for subversion under article 79 of the 1999 penal code and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The authorities accused him of carrying out “activities with the goal of demanding change of the political regime for a plural and multi-party system, as well as advocating for religious freedom in Vietnam.” Ngo Hao reportedly suffers from poor health including high blood pressure, gastric ulcers, and high cholesterol. During a visit in January 2019 at An Diem prison in Quang Nam province, his family learned that he had a stroke. He also lost vision in one eye and his other eye’s vision is deteriorating.
  • Pro-democracy campaigner and former political prisoner Nguyen Trung Ton, 47, who was convicted in April 2018 by the People’s Court of Ha Noi for subversion under article 79 of the 1999 penal code and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was accused of being a member of Brotherhood for Democracy, a group founded by prominent activist Nguyen Van Dai to advocate for basic civil and political rights. Nguyen Trung Ton suffers a serious knee injury, the result of being abducted and seriously beaten by government-sanctioned thugs in February 2017. He previously served a 2-year prison sentence between 2011-2013 for being critical of the government.
  • Land rights activist and former political prisoner Nguyen Van Tuc, 54, who was convicted in April 2018 by the People’s Court of Thai Binh province for subversion under article 79 of the 1999 penal code and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was accused of being a member of Brotherhood for Democracy, a group founded by prominent activist Nguyen Van Dai to advocate for basic civil and political rights. Nguyen Van Tuc previously served a four-year prison sentence between 2008-2012 for being critical of the government. He reportedly suffers poor health, with ailments including heart disease and keratitis, an inflammation of the eye.

Other activists who are reportedly suffering serious health problems in prison including Tran Thi Xuan, Truong Minh Duc, Hoang Duc Binh, Phan Van Thu, and Doan Dinh Nam. Their precarious health conditions add to the urgency for Australia to call on Vietnam to immediately release these unjustly jailed prisoners.

Since January 2019, Australian pro-democracy activist Chau Van Kham has been detained in Vietnam, where he is being investigated for alleged offences including attempting to overthrow the government under article 109 of the Vietnamese criminal code. Australia should advocate strongly, both publicly and privately, for his immediate release.

2. Repression of Freedom of Expression, 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 Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in prison in February and Truong Minh Duc to 12 years in April 2018.

Communist Party-controlled courts have severely punished people who were accused of being affiliated with political groups or parties that the Communist Party of Vietnam views as threatening its monopoly on power. In 2018, seven members of a pro-democracy group that called itself the Brotherhood for Democracy (Hoi Anh em Dan chu) were sentenced to between 7 and 13 years in prison. Five other people were convicted for their alleged affiliation with the Vietnam National Self Determination Coalition (Lien minh Dan toc Viet Nam Tu quyet), an independent political group, and sentenced to between 8 and 15 years in prison.

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 joining protests against a draft law on special economic zones and the cyber security law. As of March 2019, the authorities put at least 142 protesters on trial for disrupting public order and convicted many of them to imprisonment.

Physical assaults against rights bloggers and democracy campaigners continued to occur frequently. Activists and bloggers face physical assaults by officials or government connected thugs, who are not punished for these attacks. In January 2019, unidentified men abducted anti-corruption campaigner Ha Van Nam and took him in a van where they covered his head and beat him repeatedly, eventually leaving him outside a hospital. Ha Van Nam suffered two broken ribs and multiple bruises. Right before the abduction, Ha Van Nam was livestreaming on Facebook and was able to catch the van’s number, but reportedly the police have not carried out any investigation, and no one has been held responsible for the assault. In March, the police arrested Ha Van Nam for his alleged involvement in a civil disobedience action protesting the location of a toll booth in Bac Ninh province in December 2018, and charged him with “disrupting public order.”

Other unprovoked assaults that appear to have been politically motivated include an incident in April 2019, when Father Nguyen Quang Hoa carried out a service not permitted by the government at a village in Kon Tum province, and on his way home, he was attacked and beaten by a group of unidentified men. Also in April, Catholic activist Nguyen Van Dieu Linh was attacked by unknown men in Ho Chi Minh City.

Domestic restrictions on freedom of movement are used to prevent bloggers and activists from participating in public events such as environmental protests, human rights discussions, or attending trials of fellow activists. In March 2019, security agents prevented several writers and poets including Do Trung Quan and Bui Chat from leaving their house to attend an award event organized by Van Viet [Vietnamese Literature], a literary group formed and operating without government approval. Also in March, security agents prevented many independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers from attending a religious event in An Giang province. In May, security agents stopped former political prisoner Le Cong Dinh and Cao Dai religious activist Hua Phi from leaving their houses to meet with US diplomats prior to the 23rd US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. In May, 44 activists and bloggers signed a public letter denouncing the violation of their right to freedom of movement.

Police have also prevented rights campaigners from travelling abroad, sometimes citing vague national security reasons. In August 2018, the police denied the issuance of a passport to former political prisoner Le Cong Dinh without explanation. In September, police detained Dr. Nguyen Quang A for hours to prevent him from leaving for Australia. According to him, this was his 18th detention by police since March 2016. In March 2019, police prohibited political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen’s wife Bui Kim Phuong from leaving Vietnam for Singapore.                                      

Recommendations

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

  • Immediately recognize independent labor unions and ratify International Labour Organization Conventions No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize).
  • Immediately end government-sponsored or government-tolerated vigilantism.
  • Immediately end restrictions on the movement of rights bloggers and activists within and 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 Communist Party of Vietnam and the government.

3. Repression of Freedom of Information

The Vietnamese government continues to prohibit politically independent 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 January 2019, Vietnam’s problematic cybersecurity law came into effect. This overly broad and vague law gives authorities wide discretion to determine when expression must be censored as “illegal.” Service providers must take down offending content within 24 hours of receiving a request from the authorities. 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.

During the first five months of 2019, the authorities reportedly detained at least five Facebook users for their online activities, and issued fines against four others for their criticism of local leaders on Facebook. In May, the People’s Court of Dong Nai province convicted Vu Thi Dung and Nguyen Thi Ngoc Suong to six years and five years imprisonment respectively. The two were accused of reading and listening to materials on Facebook disapproved by the government and distributing leaflets calling on people to protest against China and state oppression. They were charged with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under penal code article 117. In June, the People’s Court of Ben Tre convicted Nguyen Ngoc Anh to six years in prison for his posts on Facebook.

In May, Reuters reported that between July to December 2018, Facebook “had restricted access to 1,553 posts and three profiles in Vietnam, compared to just 265 such ‘restrictions’ in the first six months of 2018.”

Recommendations

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 or detained 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 April 2019, the police of Dien Bien province reported that they have successfully campaigned “163 households including 1.006 people to have renounced an evil religion called ‘Gie Sua.’”

In May 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom published its report in which Vietnam is listed in Tier 1 as a Country of Particular Concern.

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. In detention, the authorities question them about their religious and political activities and any efforts to flee Vietnam. In March 2019, the People’s Court of Gia Lai province convicted Ksor Kuk for “Dega Protestant” practices and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Ksor Kuk previously served a six-year prison sentence between 2005-2011 for the same charge.

Official Vietnamese media makes it clear that the government has placed Dega Protestantism outside the belief systems considered “pure.” Its beliefs and faith practices are suppressed on the grounds that they are not religions at all, but simply “evil ways.”

Recommendations

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.