(New York) – The United States government should use upcoming meetings with Vietnam to press for the release of detained dissidents and other human rights improvements, Human Rights Watch said today. The 25th United States-Vietnam bilateral human rights dialogue is scheduled to begin on November 9, 2021, in Washington, DC.
The Vietnamese government is currently imprisoning at least 145 people for peacefully exercising their basic rights. In 2021 alone, the authorities prosecuted and imprisoned at least 31 people, most for expressing opinions online contrary to the government’s positions. The police arrested at least 26 other people, including a rights campaigner, Nguyen Thuy Hanh, on bogus, politically motivated charges, such as conducting propaganda against the state or abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.
“The US government should press Vietnam to take demonstrable actions to improve rights, starting with the immediate and unconditional release of rights activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam tramples on rights by arresting activists on fabricated charges and then subjecting them to abusive interrogations in detention for months without legal counsel.”
The US should place human rights concerns at the center of all its engagements with Vietnam instead of relegating it to just one dialogue per year, Human Rights Watch said. Hours after the 24th dialogue, organized online in October 2020 because of the pandemic, Vietnam arrested Pham Doan Trang, one of the country’s most prolific bloggers and an influential rights activist.
The Vietnamese government severely restricts basic civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, speech, information, association, and assembly and freedom of religion and belief. The country has no free and independent media. The government does not allow the formation of political parties or human rights organizations, and intrusively manages all religious institutions.
People who voice public criticism of the government or Communist Party leaders on social media routinely face harassment, intimidation, intrusive surveillance, restrictions on freedom of movement, physical assault, and arrest. After being detained for exercising their rights, people face abusive interrogation, long detention periods without access to legal counsel or their families, and trial by politically controlled courts meting out increasingly lengthy prison sentences.
The January trial of three prominent bloggers – Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan – of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, resulted in sentences of between 11 and 15 years in prison. A court sentenced a land rights activist, Can Thi Theu, and her son Trinh Ba Tu, contributors to the Liberal Publishing House, to eight years in prison each in May, and writer Pham Chi Thanh to five and a half years in prison in July. In October, a court sentenced five members of Clean Newspaper, a citizen newspaper formed in 2019 aiming to expose corruption and wrongdoings, to between two and four and a half years in prison. The prominent blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc has been serving a 16-year prison sentence since May 2009.
“By locking away bloggers and citizen journalists for many years, the Vietnamese government is demonstrating its complete disregard for media freedom,” Robertson said. “The United States should press Vietnam to stop using the criminal law against people exercising their rights to free expression.”
Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code contravenes international human rights standards by stipulating that government prosecutors can have suspects of “national security” crimes held in detention (article 173(5)) and restrict their access to legal counsel (article 74) until after investigation is concluded. In practice, this means that those accused of violating national security laws are held in police custody without access to a lawyer for as long as the authorities want.
Police arrested Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam in June 2020, but it was not until July 2021 that Trinh Ba Phuong was allowed to see a defense lawyer. Pham Doan Trang was arrested on October 6, 2020, and was allowed to see a defense lawyer for the first time only on October 19, 2021. A court in Hanoi initially scheduled the cases of the land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam for November 3 and Pham Doan Trang for November 4, and then postponed the hearings.
“The United States should urge Vietnam to repeal criminal procedure code articles that permit extended pretrial detention without access to lawyers, which undermines due process and facilitates abuse of detainees,” Robertson said.