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Twelve Vietnamese rights activists and bloggers currently detained for exercising their basic rights. Top row from left to right: Bui Tuan Lam, Le Manh Ha, Dinh Van Hai, Bui Van Thuan. Center row:  Pham Doan Trang, Trinh Ba Phuong, Nguyen Thi Tam, Truong Van Dung. Bottom row: Nguyen Lan Thang, Mai Phan Loi, Dang Dinh Bach, Tran Van Bang.  © 2023 Human Rights Watch

(Bangkok) – The European Union should make use of a bilateral dialogue on June 9, 2023 in Hanoi to press the Vietnamese government to end its systemic violations of human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Vietnam has disregarded the human rights commitments made when signing the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement in 2020 and intensified its repression by wrongfully sentencing activists to long prison terms, restricting civil and political liberties, and violating the freedom of religion and belief.

“The EU claimed its 2020 Free Trade Agreement would encourage Vietnam to improve its human rights record, but just the opposite has happened,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hanoi’s disregard for rights has already made it clear that the EU needs to consider actions that go beyond simply issuing statements and hoping for the best.”

Through the creation of a Domestic Advisory Group, the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement was also supposed to promote the participation of independent civil society groups to help oversee the implementation of the trade and sustainable development chapter of the agreement. However, on July 2, 2021, Vietnamese police arrested Mai Phan Loi and Dang Dinh Bach, two active leaders of the nongovernmental organization trade agreement network that civil society groups created to promote their participation in the Domestic Advisory Group. On July 14, the EU group published a letter protesting the arrests of Loi and Bach. In January 2022, they were convicted on baseless charges of tax evasion and sentenced to three years and nine months, and five years in prison, respectively.

Of the Domestic Advisory Group’s seven members approved by the Vietnamese government, at least four organizations are closely linked to the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam and chaired by senior party members.

On May 31, Vietnamese authorities arrested Hoang Thi Minh Hong, another prominent environmentalist and climate change campaigner, also on wrongful tax evasion charges.

Human Rights Watch in May made a submission to the EU on the human rights situation in Vietnam, and urged the bloc to press the Vietnamese authorities to immediately release all political prisoners and detainees. Specifically, Human Rights Watch raised the cases of Le Manh Ha, Dinh Van Hai, Bui Van Thuan, Pham Doan Trang, Trinh Ba PhuongNguyen Thi Tam, Truong Van Dung, Nguyen Lan Thang, Tran Van Bang, Bui Tuan Lam, Mai Phan Loi, and Dang Dinh Bach. Currently, Vietnam holds more than 150 political prisoners.

On June 6, three days before the human rights dialogue, Vietnam sentenced yet another human rights campaigner, the music teacher Dang Dang Phuoc, to eight years in prison and four years’ probation for expressing his critical views on social, environmental, and political issues.

Human Rights Watch also urged the EU to press the Vietnamese government to amend or repeal the penal code articles 109, 116, 117, 118, and 331, which the authorities frequently use to repress civil and political rights. The government should also repeal or amend articles 14(2) and 15(4) of the constitution, which allow for restrictions on human rights for reasons of national security that go beyond what is permissible under international human rights law.

Vietnam should also end its abusive restrictions on the right to freedom of movement. Human rights and pro-democracy activists frequently face restrictions on leaving their homes or neighborhood, are confronted with intimidation and violence by officials or government-connected thugs, and are prevented from leaving the country. In May, police at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi prohibited the prominent rights defender Nguyen Quang A from leaving for a trip to Europe.

“The EU should get serious about pressing the Vietnamese government to convert rights pledges into genuine reform,” Robertson said. “It’s not much of a rights dialogue if Vietnam officials are just going through the motions, expressing platitudes, and waiting for the meeting to end.”

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