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Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the preparations for the upcoming European Union-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, scheduled to be held in Hanoi on June 9, 2023.

Vietnam’s government severely restricts basic civil and political rights in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Vietnam ratified in 1982. These include the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, movement, and religion and belief. It prohibits the formation and operation of any organization or group the Vietnamese Communist Party deems threatening to its monopoly on power. Authorities block access to websites and require social media and telecommunications companies remove content deemed to be politically sensitive. Those who criticize the one-party state, including on social media, face police harassment, restricted movement, physical assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, and prosecution. Police detain political activists for months without access to legal counsel and subject them to abusive interrogations and in some cases, torture. Party-controlled courts convict bloggers and activists on bogus national security charges and impose lengthy prison sentences.

A Vietnamese government decree issued in August 2022 broadly restricts international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Vietnam from any activity against “national interests, laws, national defense, security, social order and safety” and “social ethics, national fine customs and practices, national traditions, identity or great national unity” of Vietnam. No definitions of these terms are provided in the decree, but groups deemed to violate these provisions will be shut down.

In April, a delegation from the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights visited Vietnam to assess the human rights situation in the country. After the visit, the delegation “expressed great concern over the worsening human rights situation in Vietnam, and in particular as regards the shrinking space for civil society, abuse of the vague provisions of the criminal code to suppress critical voices, the harassment of activists, repression of the freedom of expression, notably in the online space, and of freedom of religion and belief.” Furthermore, the delegation also “called for the immediate and unconditional release of all the political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, including leaders of non-governmental organisations, journalists and environmental activists.”

As the human rights dialogue approaches, Human Rights Watch recommends that the EU follow up on the findings of the European Parliamentarians in April, and focus on three priority areas regarding the dire human rights situation in Vietnam: 1) political prisoners and detainees; 2) restrictions on freedom of movement; and 3) repression of the right to freely practice religion and belief. We urge the EU to press for clear, concrete, and measurable benchmarks for progress in these areas, laying out consequences for bilateral relations should these violations continue to go unaddressed.

1. Political Prisoners and Detainees

The Vietnamese government frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in Vietnam’s penal code and other laws to prosecute and imprison peaceful 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) or “conducting propaganda against the state”, 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 currently holds more than 150 people in prison for peacefully exercising their basic civil and political rights. Since the last human dialogue between the EU and Vietnam in April 2022, the Vietnamese authorities convicted and sentenced to prison at least 20 people for criticizing the government or joining independent organizations or religious groups including citizen journalist Le Manh Ha, and democracy activists Dinh Van Hai and Bui Van Thuan, to between five and eight years in prison.

In August 2022, courts in Hanoi rejected the appeals of the prominent blogger Pham Doan Trang, and land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam. In March and April 2023, courts convicted and sentenced democracy campaigners Truong Van Dung, Nguyen Lan Thang, Tran Van Bang, to between six and eight years in prison.

On May 25, a Danang court convicted Bui Tuan Lam of propaganda against the state, and sentenced him to five and half years in prison. Authorities denied him access to legal counsel from the time of his arrest in September 2022, and in April 2023 unilaterally claimed that he did not want to be represented by a defense lawyer. Bui Tuan Lam’s wife challenged that order, and ultimately got it reversed, but the authorities then retaliated by refusing her access to the trial. When she showed up outside the court on the day of trial, she was apprehended, manhandled, dragged in the street causing injuries to both her legs before being released around 7:00 pm, long after the trial had finished. One defense lawyer, Ngo Anh Tuan, was kicked out of the court room before he finished his defense argument.

In 2022, the Vietnamese government stepped up the repression of NGO activists. Courts convicted journalist Mai Phan Loi, environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach, and environmental defender Nguy Thi Khanh on politically motivated charges of alleged tax evasion and sent them to prison. Nguy Thi Khanh is a 2018 winner of the internationally prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, honoring grassroots environmental activists. In May 2023, under international pressure, Nguy Thi Khanh was released five months earlier than her prison sentence. Also in May, the United Nation Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion that the Vietnamese government should “release Mr. Bach immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations.”

Police also arrested the activists Hoang Ngoc Giao in December 2022 and Nguyen Son Lo in February 2023.

Vietnam’s criminal procedure code stipulates that the procurator of the People’s Supreme Procuracy can decide to hold a person suspected of violating national security in detention until the investigation is concluded (article 173(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 offenses are regularly held in police custody without access to a lawyer for as long as the authorities deem appropriate.

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

  • Immediately release all political prisoners and detainees held for exercising their basic civil and political rights.
  • Amend or repeal penal code articles 109, 116, 117, 118 and 331 in conformity with Vietnam's obligations under the ICCPR.
  • Amend or repeal articles 74 and 173 of the criminal procedure code and allow anyone for any alleged violations, including national security crimes, to have immediate access to legal counsel upon being arrested.

2. Restrictions on Freedom of Movement

Vietnamese authorities routinely violate the right to freedom of movement and other basic rights by subjecting activists, dissidents, human rights defenders, and others to indefinite house arrest, harassment in public, and other actions that restrict their ability to travel. The authorities frequently detain activists just long enough to prevent them from attending public protests, trials of fellow activists, meetings with visiting foreign diplomats, and other human rights-related events.

Security agents keep people under house arrest by stationing plainclothes security agents outside homes, using padlocks to lock people inside, erecting roadblocks and other barriers to prevent people from leaving their homes and others from entering, mobilizing neighborhood thugs to intimidate people into staying home, and even applying very strong adhesives – such as “superglue” – on homeowner’s locks.

The government also systematically blocks rights activists, bloggers, dissidents, and their family members from domestic and international travel, including by stopping them at airports and border gates, and denying them passports or other documents that would allow them to leave or enter the country.

Human Rights Watch published a report, “Locked Inside Our Home: Movement Restrictions on Rights Activists in Vietnam,” in February 2022 that details Vietnam’s systemic, severe restrictions on freedom of movement between 2004 and 2021.

In August 2022, police prohibited human rights lawyer Vo An Don and his family from leaving Vietnam for the United States, citing national security. In October, police prohibited Father Truong Hoang Vu of the Redemptorist Order from leaving Vietnam for the United States, citing social order and safety as a reason.

In May, police at Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi prohibited prominent rights activist Nguyen Quang A from leaving Vietnam for Europe, citing “security” as a reason.

In a serious incident, democracy campaigner Duong Van Thai, who was a UNHCR recognized refugee in Thailand, disappeared in Bangkok on April 13, only to be announced that he was in Vietnamese police custody on April 16. Media reports citing local witnesses revealed he was abducted by people in cars who blocked the path of his motorcycle as he was riding home from a local coffee shop, and forced him into a car that drove off. Thai government officials told Human Rights Watch that the Thai government had nothing to do with this, and is actively investigating the case as an abduction that violated Thai sovereignty.

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

  • Immediately end arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of movement, including house arrests, arbitrary detention, harassment, surveillance, and domestic and international travel bans, that are imposed against activists and other critics of the government.
  • Repeal or amend article 14(2) and article 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.
  • Repeal or amend provisions of the Law on Immigration that allow the authorities to arbitrarily ban Vietnamese citizens from traveling abroad or returning to Vietnam on the basis of vaguely defined national security provisions.

3. Repression of the Right to Freely Practice Religion and Belief

The Vietnamese 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 regularly ban religious activities they arbitrarily deem to be 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”) and harasses those who practice those beliefs.

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.

As of September 2021, Vietnam acknowledged that it had not officially recognized about 140 religious groups with approximately one million followers.

Police arrested Y Krec Bya in April and Nay Y Blang in May 2023 for being affiliated with independent religious groups that the government does not approve.

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-appointed boards should be allowed to operate independently.
  • End government harassment, forced denunciations of faith, arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, and ill-treatment of people because they are followers of disfavored religions, and release anyone currently being held for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of religion, belief, expression, assembly and association.

Permit outside observers, including United Nations agencies, NGOs, and foreign diplomats, to have unhindered and unaccompanied access to the Central Highlands, including specifically to communes and villages inhabited by Montagnards and other marginalized groups. Ensure there is no retribution or retaliation against anyone who speaks to or otherwise communicates

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