(Sydney) – Australia should press for significant and solid improvement during its 13th human rights dialogue with Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said today. Vietnam should show its commitment to reforms by immediately releasing all political prisoners and detainees, ending harassment and violence against rights activists, respecting freedom of religion, curbing police brutality, and preventing any punishment of boat people returnees. The agenda and outcome of the dialogue in Hanoi on August 4, 2016, should be made public.

Police try to stop protesters who say they are demanding cleaner waters in the central regions after mass fish deaths in recent weeks, in Hanoi, Vietnam on May 1, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

“In 2016, Vietnamese authorities have sentenced yet more activists and bloggers to jail, broken up peaceful demonstration by force, and restricted religious freedom,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Australia should use this opportunity to make it clear to Vietnam that empty promises on human rights are not acceptable.”

In a submission to the Australian government ahead of the dialogue, Human Rights Watch urged Australia to focus on political prisoners and detainees; harassment, violence and restrictions on activists and dissidents; repression of freedom of religion; police brutality; and criminal punishment of Vietnamese boat returnees in contravention of government assurances.

In the first half of 2016, Vietnam convicted at least 12 people, including the prominent bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh (a.k.a Ba Sam) and Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (a.k.a Nguyen Ngoc Gia), and sentenced them to long prison terms simply for exercising their basic rights enshrined in the Vietnamese Constitution. They joined more than 100 others who are behind bars for exercising their rights, including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Ngo Hao, Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, Nguyen Dang Minh Man, Nguyen Cong Chinh, Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, and Doan Huy Chuong.

The government convicted many of them for political crimes such as “conducting propaganda against the state” (Penal Code article 88), “activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” (article 79), “undermining national great unity” (article 87), “disrupting security” (article 89), or “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon national interests” (article 258). At least a dozen of the rights activists and bloggers – including Nguyen Van Dai, Tran Anh Kim, Le Thanh Tung, and Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy – have been detained since 2015 pending investigation.

Peaceful bloggers and activists face violence in Vietnam. In July alone, at least 11 rights campaigners, including La Viet Dung and To Oanh, were assaulted and injured by men in civilian clothes who appeared to be acting as agents of the authorities, activists reported. The authorities place bloggers and activists under house arrest or temporary detention to prevent them from attending various events or protests. In May, police detained the prominent activists Pham Doan Trang and Nguyen Quang A so that they could not join a meeting with United States President Barack Obama during his visit.

“Vietnamese bloggers and activists face daily harassment, intimidation, violence, and imprisonment – even the simple act of meeting a diplomat entails some level of risk for activists in Vietnam,” Pearson said. “Australia needs to unequivocally pressure Vietnam to stop abuse of rights.”

Vietnamese authorities not only retaliate against rights advocates, but against ordinary citizens as well. In July, during an appeals trial, the government upheld the prison sentences against four people who attempted to travel to Australia by boat in March 2015 – Tran Thi Thanh Loan and her husband Ho Trung Loi, Nguyen Thi Lien, and Nguyen Van Hai. They were convicted of “organizing others to flee abroad illegally” under article 275 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. Four others were convicted in May and sentenced to two to three years in prison each on the same charges.

In both cases, the Australian navy intercepted the boats at sea and returned all the passengers to Vietnam. In both cases, Vietnam gave assurances to the Australian government that it would not punish people for illegally leaving the country but then brought charges against them for organizing the trips. In June, the Australian navy intercepted another boat that carried 21 Vietnamese and sent them back to Vietnam.

The Australian government has said that “any potential criminal investigations or proceedings for people smuggling-related offenses are a matter for the Vietnamese government.” But these individuals were not punished for unlawfully bringing people into another country with the purpose of financial or material benefit – the definition of people smuggling under international law. They were punished for leaving their own country and helping their families, relatives, and friends who willingly went with them.

The right to leave one’s country is a bedrock right under international law. Prosecuting migrants after their forcible return will only reinforce the refugee claims of others, who now may reasonably fear punishment upon return. The Australian government would do well to press for improvements to Vietnam’s poor human rights practices, which only encourage refugee outflows in the first place.

“These people threw themselves into a life-risking situation because they were desperate,” Pearson said. “The Vietnamese government should show leniency instead of punishing them, and Australia should press Vietnam to keep the promises it made to Australia not to punish the migrants.”