Australia – Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue
Human Rights Watch Submission
August 1, 2016
We write on the occasion of the forthcoming 13th Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue, scheduled to be held in Vietnam in August 2016. Australia should raise pressing human rights issues in an unambiguous manner, set clear benchmarks for improvements, and make the outcome of the discussions public.
The Vietnamese government continues to systematically suppress freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely placed under intrusive police surveillance. Critics face multiple forms of police harassment, including intimidation of family members, arbitrary prohibitions on travel within Vietnam or abroad, physical assaults, and fines. Authorities also arbitrarily detain critics incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits. Many are sentenced to long terms in prison for violating vague national security or other draconian laws. Police frequently torture suspects to elicit confessions and sometimes respond to public protests with excessive use of force.
Human Rights Watch recommends that Australia should focus on political prisoners and detainees; harassment, violence, and restrictions on activists and dissidents;repression of freedom of religion; police brutality; and Vietnamese boat returns.
Prisoners and Detainees
In November 2015, the public security minister at the time, General Tran Dai Quang,reported to the National Assembly that from June 2012 until November 2015, “The police have received, arrested, and dealt with 1,410 cases involving 2,680 people who violated national security.” He said, “During this same period, opposition persons have illegally established more than 60 groups and organizations in the name of democracy and human rights, which have about 350 participants from 50 cities and provinces.”
Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its penal code and other laws to imprison peaceful political and religious dissidents. Under the 2015 revised penal code, which will become effective in the near future, these include “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” (penal code article 109, penalty up to death sentence); “undermining national unity policy” (article 116, penalty up to 15 years in prison); “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 117, penalty up to 20 years); “disrupting security” (article 118, penalty up to 15 years); and “supplemental punishment” which strips former prisoners convicted of “national security” crimes of certain rights, puts them on probation for up to five years, and allows confiscation of part or all of their property (article 122). Vietnam also uses other articles in the penal code to target peaceful dissenters, including “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the State and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and citizens” (article 331, originally article 256); “disrupting public order” (article 318, originally article 245); and charges such as tax evasion.
The revised code includes harsher provisions in a number of cases such as article 109 (originally article 79); article 117 (originally article 88); and article 118 (originally article 89). Each has a clause that states, “The person who takes actions in preparation of committing this crime shall be subject to between one and five years of imprisonment.”
During the first five months of 2016, at least a dozen critics and activists were convicted for peaceful acts of free expression to sentences ranging from three years to nine years in prison, including prominent bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh (a.k.a Ba Sam) and Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (a.k.a Nguyen Ngoc Gia). Twelve more rights activists and bloggers including prominent lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, former political prisoners Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung, have been detained since 2015 pending investigation.
Some examples of current political prisoners and detainees include:
2. Harassment, Violence and Restrictions on Activists and Dissidents
Vietnam continues to suppress dissent by peaceful dissidents and activists and punishes them for forming organizations that the government views as hostile to its interests. The government bans all political parties, unions, and human rights organizations that are independent of the government or the Party.
Vietnamese dissidents say that violence or harassment by plainclothes police thugs is the new norm. Thugs, who appear to be government agents in civilian clothes, have beenattacking dissidents at an increasing rate, often in public, and with complete impunity. Uniformed police officers do not intervene, most likely because they believe the attackers are state agents. The authorities have also been using proxies on social media to attack and defame bloggers and activists.
In 2015, Human Rights Watch recorded at least 45 cases of assault against dissidents and human rights defenders, including beatings, threats, and property destruction. These cases include acts against Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh, Tran Thi Nga, Nguyen Chi Tuyen, Trinh Anh Tuan, Dinh Quang Tuyen, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Chu Manh Son, Dinh Thi Phuong Thao, and Tran Minh Nhat. On November 22, 2015, the police of Dong Nai province detained and assaulted former political prisoner and labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh for helping workers at Yupoong Company to exercise their rights. No one involved in the assaults was held accountable.
Harassment and violence have continued in 2016. In February, a thug threw rocks at former political prisoner, Tran Minh Nhat, at his house in Lam Dong province causing a severe head injury. In June, a man in plain clothes attacked rights activist Nguyen Van Thanh at a café in Da Nang in broad daylight. These attacks appear to be carried out on official orders or with official acquiescence as the government finds ways other than widely condemned public trials to silence dissent.
The government has also prevented an increasing number of dissidents and human rights defenders from traveling abroad. Rights activists and bloggers such as Nguyen Quang A, Pham Doan Trang, Huynh Ngoc Chenh, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Kim Chi, Tran Bang, and many others were placed under house arrest or briefly detained so they could not attend certain meetings or events.
Australia should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:
3. Repression of
Freedom of Religion
In January 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt issued a report identifying “serious problems” in Vietnam’s approach to religion, notably “legal provisions that tend to give broad leeway to regulate, limit, restrict or forbid the exercise of freedom of religion or belief.”
In November 2015, the ministry of interior submitted a new draft “Law on Belief and Religion” to the National Assembly. The new draft maintains mechanisms allowing authorities to persecute religious groups they dislike. For example, clause 5 of article 6 prohibits “the abuse of freedom of religion and beliefs to… sow division among the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order and social morale.”
“National great unity,” “national security,” and “social morale” are vague terms and have been arbitrarily used by the authorities to punish hundreds of peaceful bloggers and activists. The draft law requires religious groups to “have been granted a registration for religious activities by authoritative state office and have carried out stable religious activities for 10 years” before it can apply to be recognized by the state (article 18).
The new draft interferes with the internal affairs of religious groups, such as the requirement for religious dignitaries to be appointed (including one must “have the spirit of national unity and harmony” – article 32) or the requirement for religious education within religious institutions to include “Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law as the core subjects” (article 22). Like current regulations that curb the freedom of religion and belief, the draft requires religious groups to register with the government for everything they do, including annual activities, festivals, conferences, conventions, appointments, etc., and stipulates that authoritative offices must respond within a certain amount of time. However, the draft does not stipulate what happens if the authoritative offices fail to respond.
Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the Vietnamese government’s ongoing persecution of ethnic Montagnard Christians in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, one aspect of a broader pattern of rights violations against religious minorities in the country. Accused of practicing “evil way” religions, Montagnard practitioners of the De Ga and Ha Mon forms of Christianity are persecuted pursuant to high level government policy. They are subjected to constant surveillance and other forms of intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and mistreatment in security force custody. In detention, the authorities question them about their religious and political activities and possible plans to flee Vietnam. Over the past couple of years, hundreds have fled to Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese authorities have responded to the flight of Montagnards into Cambodia by pressuring Cambodian authorities to prevent border crossings and deny those who do cross the right to seek asylum; Cambodian authorities, in turn, refused to register more than a handful as asylum seekers.
4. Police Abuse:
Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Torture
5. Vietnamese Boat Returns
In two separate incidents in April and July 2015, the Australian navy intercepted two boats at sea that were bound for Australia 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.
However, a total of eight individuals from the two boats have been convicted for “organizing for others to flee abroad illegally” under article 275 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. Each of the defendants received sentences ranging from two to three years in prison.
The Australian government has said that “any potential criminal investigations or proceedings for people smuggling related offences are a matter for the Vietnamese Government.”
But these individuals were not convicted of financially benefitting from illegally bringing people into another country – the definition of smuggling under international law. They were convicted for helping others leave an oppressive country. The right to leave one’s country is a bedrock right under international law.
Human Rights Watch List of Current Political Prisoners
The following list only includes detained persons who have been convicted, not the significant number of detainees who have been arrested and are currently facing trial, nor cases of arrest or conviction not publicly known.