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Human Rights Watch
Submission to the European Union for the EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue
January 2020


Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing preparations for the forthcoming 9th European Union-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, scheduled to be held in Hanoi on February 19, 2020.



The Vietnamese government continues to restrict all basic civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the rights to freely practice beliefs and religion. It prohibits the formation and operation of any organization or group deemed threatening to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. Authorities block accesses to websites and request that social media and/or telecommunications companies remove contents deemed to be politically sensitive. Those who criticize the one-party government face police intimidation, harassment, restricted movement, physical assault, detention, and arrest and imprisonment. Police detain political activists for months without access to legal counsel and subject them to abusive interrogations. Party-controlled courts sentence bloggers and activists on bogus national security charges.

Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record has led many in the European parliament to voice concerns. Regrettably, the government's crackdown has continued, with the adoption of a problematic cybersecurity law last January and new waves of arrests of perceived critics.

Human Rights Watch recommends that during the dialogue, the EU focuses on five priority areas regarding the dire human rights situation in Vietnam: 1) political prisoners and detainees; 2) repression of freedom of speech, association, assembly and movement; 3) repression of freedom of information; 4) repression of the right to freely practice religion; and 5) 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 2019, the government convicted and imprisoned at least 30 rights bloggers and activists under various abusive laws, including Nguyen Ngoc Anh (6 years), Nguyen Nang Tinh (11 years), and Pham Van Diep (9 years).

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. For example, Pham Chi Dung, an independent journalist, has been detained awaiting trial since his arrest in November 2019 and charged with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” most likely in connection to his outreach to the European Parliament. His detention sparked outrage in the European Parliament, and his case was raised by president Sassoli, but the Vietnamese ambassador to the EU defended the arrest and compared Vietnam’s limitations to freedom of expression to those in place in Europe. In December, police denied defense requests from lawyers Dang Dinh Manh and Nguyen Van Mieng to represent Pham Chi Dung, on the basis that defense lawyers can only participate in the procedure once investigation is concluded.

The EU 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 basic civil and political rights.
  • Amend or repeal penal code articles 109, 116, 117, 118 and 331 in conformity with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
  • Amend or repeal article 74 and article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code and allow all people detained for any alleged violations, including national security crimes, 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 the EU as well as international humanitarian and human rights groups.

The EU should also call for the immediate release of political prisoners or detainees who have health problems so that they can receive proper medical treatment. In October 2019, Doan Dinh Nam, 68, passed away in prison due to illness. He was arrested in 2012 for being involved in a religious group unauthorized by the government, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Some of the most urgent cases for immediate release are:

  • Pro-democracy campaigner Ho Duc Hoa, 46, who was convicted in January 2013 by the People’s Court of Hanoi for subversion under article 79 of the 1999 penal code and sentenced to 13 years in prison. As a founding member of the Vinh Human Development Fund, Ho Duc Hoa and his colleagues helped raise funds to provide scholarships to high-achieving, yet poor, high-school and university students, to enable them to continue their studies. He regularly participated in volunteer activities in local neighborhoods in Vinh on projects for the poor and persons with disabilities. Police arrested Ho Duc Hoa in July 2011 for participating in Viet Tan, a banned overseas-based political party. In December 2019, during a family visit, Ho Duc Hoa told his brother that his health deteriorated and prison doctors suspected that he might have liver cancer.
  • Pro-democracy campaigner Nguyen Trung Ton, 48, 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.
  • 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 deteriorating health problems in prison including Nguyen Trung Truc, Truong Minh Duc, and Hoang Duc Binh. Their precarious health conditions add to the urgency for the EU to call on Vietnam to immediately release these unjustly jailed prisoners.


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.

In June 2019, Vietnam ratified International Labor Convention (ILO) 98 on collective bargaining and the right to organize. In November, the National Assembly passed a revised labor code, which will be effective in January 2021. However, the language of the new law is vague. It does not refer to independent labor unions but only to non-state labor organizations as “organizations of laborers at enterprises” (to chuc cua nguoi lao dong tai doanh nghiep). Article 172 provides that a labor organization can only be “legally established and operate” if it “is granted a registration by an authorized state office.” In practice, this provision would mean that unions can only be considered lawful if their creation is approved by the government.

Article 173 also contains problematic language providing that union leaders cannot be persons previously convicted for “crimes against national security,” among other laws stipulated in Vietnam’s Penal Code. This is problematic in the Vietnamese context because the relevant penal code provisions mentioned are those typically used against human rights defenders, political dissidents, and labour and land rights activists. In practice, this provision would disqualify from union leadership a larger number of important human rights and labour rights defenders, and severely weaken workers’ capacity to organize. Independent labor activists such as Hoang Duc Binh and Truong Minh Duc are serving long prison sentences.

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 November 2019, Chau Van Kham, an Australian citizen, and his fellow members Nguyen Van Vien and Tran Van Quyen, were sentenced to 12, 11 and 10 years in prison respectively, for participated in the outlawed overseas political party Viet Tan.

Authorities require approval for public gatherings and systematically refuse permission for meetings, marches, or public assemblies they deem to be politically unacceptable. In June 2019, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City convicted and sentenced Truong Huu Loc to eight years in prison for participating in and distributing food at a mass protest in June 2018.

Activists and bloggers face frequent physical assaults by officials or thugs who appear to work in coordination with authorities and enjoy impunity. In July 2019, a group of rights activists was attacked in Nghe An province while traveling to a local prison to show support for political prisoners there on hunger strike protesting mistreatment. As the activists approached the prison, a large group of plainclothes men attacked them with sticks and helmets, broke their phones, and robbed them. Many were injured, including prominent blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh and his wife, human rights activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh.

Police routinely place activists under house arrest or briefly detain them to prevent them from participating in meetings and protests or attending the trials of fellow activists.

In September 2019, security agents prevented lawyer Dang Dinh Manh from leaving his house to attend a meeting with a German delegation in Ho Chi Minh City. In January 2020, activists including Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu, Huynh Ngoc Chenh and Nguyen Thuy Hanh reported that security agents prevented them from leaving their house during the Dong Tam land clash.

Police have also prevented rights campaigners from traveling abroad, sometimes citing vague national security reasons. In March, police barred political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen’s wife, Bui Kim Phuong, from leaving Vietnam for Singapore. In June, pro-environment activist Cao Vinh Thinh was prohibited from leaving Vietnam for Thailand. In November, the police prohibited Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc from traveling to Tokyo. In December, officials refused to issue a passport to former political prisoner Le Cong Dinh.

In recent years there have also been increasing numbers of cases in which the government has confiscated land for various economic projects, without adequate compensation. The term “dan oan,” which literally translates as “wronged people,” has in recent years emerged as a common idiom in Vietnamese usage to describe people who have been forced off their land by authorities, indicating how widespread these problems have become. Disputes between Vietnamese citizens and authorities attempting to remove them from their homes and land may grow worse in coming years. Recently, on January 9, a violent incident occurred in Dong Tam, a commune in My Duc district in Hanoi, involving police and land rights activists involved in protests against local land confiscations in the area. Several deaths were reported.

The EU should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Immediately recognize independent labor unions and take steps to ensure that they can operate without government interference.
  • Ratify and duly implement International Labour Organization Conventions No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize).
  • Amend or repeal penal code provisions including articles 109, 117 and 118 that stand in the way for the full enjoyment of the rights enshrined in ILO Convention No. 87 and in the ICCPR;
  • Ensure that truly independent civil society activists and scholars can be part of the Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs) foreseen by the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement and ensure that they can exercise their role freely and without fear of violence, arrest or intimidation;
  • Immediately end government-sponsored vigilantism.
  • Immediately end restriction of movement of rights bloggers and activists within, to and from Vietnam.
  • Bring legislation regulating public gatherings and demonstrations including Decree 38/2005 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.
  • Launch an impartial and transparent investigation of the January 9 Dong Tam clash and hold accountable those who used violence. 
  • Permit immediate and unfettered access to Dong Tam area to local and international journalists, diplomats, UN agency officials and other impartial observers to assess what happened and monitor the government’s investigation of this incident.


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.

Vietnam’s problematic cybersecurity law went into effect in January 2019. The overly broad and vague law gives authorities wide discretion to censor free expression and requires service providers to take down content that authorities consider offensive within 24 hours of receiving the request. At least 25 people were convicted and sentenced to prison for expressing critical opinions on the internet in application of penal code provisions highlighted above.

The EU 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.
  • Ensure all decrees related to the Law on Cyber Security comply 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 government labels Dega Protestant, Ha Mon Catholic, Falun Gong and a few other religious groups as ta dao (evil religion).

The police monitor and sometimes violently crack down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions. Unrecognized independent religious groups face constant surveillance, harassment, and intimidation, and their followers are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment.

In March 2019, security agents prevented independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers to gather in Cho Moi, Long An province to commemorate the anniversary of the death of founder Huynh Phu So, and they also blocked commemoration of the founding day of the sect in June 2019. In April 2019, police in Dien Bien province reported that they had successfully convinced “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 as a “Country of Particular Concern.”

In January 2020, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc reported that police intimidated local priests and pressured them not to allow him to conduct Mass in Dong Nai in August 2019, in Binh Duong in November 2019, and in Ho Chi Minh City in January 2020.

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, a court in Gia Lai province put Ksor Ruk on trial for following an unrecognized Dega Protestant sect and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Ksor Ruk served a six-year prison sentence between 2005-2011 for the same violation. In August, Rah Lan Hip was convicted by the same court to seven years in prison, also for being involved with Dega Protestantism.

The EU 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 EU 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, 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.

In March 2019, Nguyen Van Tuan, 42, was arrested for allegedly involving in a gambling case. Less than a week later, he died from a serious brain injury while in police custody in Nghe An province. There were also bruises on his right arm. A police officer said that the victim “himself hit his head and body against the wall.” The result of investigation of his death, if any, has not been published.

In November 2019, Dang Thanh Tung, 26, died in police custody in Ha Nam province. He was arrested in September for alleged involvement in pimping for underage prostitution. The police claimed that Dang Thanh Tung died from illness, but his wife Nguyen Thi Lan told a reporter that there were many bruises on his body. She wrote that she saw bruises on his chest, back, arms, thighs and behind. His mouth was swollen and bloody. She also reported that the police tried to prevent her from taking photos of bruises on his body.

In November 2019, a high court in Ho Chi Minh City heard for the third time the appeal of former police officers Huynh Ngoc Tong and Pham Thanh Binh. The two were accused of using corporal punishment and causing the death of Nguyen Tuan Thanh in police custody in November 2012. In May 2016, the People’s Court of Dong Thap province convicted and sentenced Huynh Ngoc Tong 18 months and Pham Thanh Binh 11 months and 11 days in prison. According to the newspaper Dan Tri, both defendants claimed that they were themselves subject to corporal punishment and forced to admit guilt. The court decided to nullify the verdict and order a new investigation.

In September 2019, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed to approve a roadmap that requires all interrogation be videoed or taped nation-wide, starting on January 1, 2020. However, in December 2019, Ministry of Public Security announced a postponement of the roadmap, citing the lack of recording equipment and training for police investigators. It is unclear when it will become effective.

The EU should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Investigate all allegations of torture or other mistreatment in detention, and ensure that police officers implicated, are disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate, regardless of rank.
  • Clearly and unequivocally signal through public statements, internal directives, and specific measures by senior government officials and the highest-ranking police officials that the use of torture, beatings, or any other form of mistreatment in police custody is unacceptable and will be punished.
  • 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 police internal affairs or professional responsibility unit such as the People’s Public Security Inspectorate fails to do so in cases in which credible allegations have been validated.
  • Immediately require police to videotape all interrogations to prevent the use of torture and ill-treatment. Do not allow confessions made in custody into evidence at trial unless they and all interrogations are videotaped and submitted as well.
  • 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 may meet their clients in private, without the presence of police and without being recorded or videotaped, and for as long as necessary.
  • Lawyers or legal counsel must be present at all interrogation sessions between police and detainees, and can advise detainees they have a right not to respond to police questioning at any point.

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