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(New York) - Vietnamese government is intensifying a crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents ahead of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 13th party congress scheduled for January 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have arrested and convicted numerous people for political crimes between late 2019 and June 2020.
Authorities across the country have detained and charged members of the Independent Journalists Association, a member of the human rights group Brotherhood for Democracy, and several other independent writers and activists. Courts have also convicted several previously detained dissidents and sentenced them to significant prison time.
“Vietnam is clamping down hard on dissent this year, and other countries need to speak up,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Vietnam’s allies and trading partners should be complaining about these new cases to Hanoi and demanding that the authorities release these political prisoners.”
The party congress, held every five years and during which the party’s top leadership meets to select the next set of Vietnam’s leaders, is one of the most important political events in the one-party state. In the past, Vietnamese authorities have rounded up dissidents and activists to ensure that the congress appears to run smoothly and without any dissident or opposition voices. Human Rights Watch knows of at least 150 people convicted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression or association and currently in prison. At least 15 others have been charged but not yet put on trial.
Among the troubling arrests of members of the Independent Journalists Association, Ho Chi Minh City police arrested Nguyen Tuong Thuy in May and Le Huu Minh Tuan in June, apparently for their affiliation with the association. The president of the organization, Pham Chi Dung, had been arrested in November, apparently in connection to his opposition to the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement. All three were charged with spreading anti-state propaganda under article 117 of the penal code.
The Independent Journalists Association was founded in July 2014 to promote media freedom and democracy. Members have contributed commentary pieces for the association’s website Viet Nam Thoi Bao (Vietnam Times), participated in anti-China and pro-environment protests, supported political prisoners and fellow activists, and attended human rights-related events. In the past, the authorities have subjected the group to intrusive surveillance, harassment, intimidation, house arrest, travel bans, detention, and interrogation.
“Government documents in Vietnam typically contain letterhead with the words ‘independence-freedom-happiness’ – but with these cases we see that anyone who exercises independence has their freedom and happiness taken away,” Sifton said.
On March 19, 2020, the Thanh Nien newspaper reported that police in Gia Lai province arrested three people – named Kung, Jur, and Lup – for their affiliation with Ha Mon, a Catholic group not approved by the government. The charges against them are not clear. Previously, the authorities charged those who were arrested for their affiliation with Ha Mon with the vague crime of “undermining national unity.”
On June 13, the police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Huynh Anh Khoa (also known as Nino Huynh), the moderator of a Facebook group that discusses Vietnamese economic, social, and political issues. He was charged with “abusing the rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interest of the state” under article 331 of the penal code. Another moderator of the group, Nguyen Dang Thuong, has also reportedly been arrested, but it remains unclear if he has been charged.
In April, police in Nghe An province arrested a former political prisoner, Tran Duc Thach, for his alleged affiliation with Brotherhood for Democracy and charged him with subversion.
Brotherhood for Democracy was founded in April 2013 by the dissident Nguyen Van Dai and fellow activists, with a stated goal “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.” The group provides a network for activists both in and outside Vietnam who campaign for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.
Seven members of the group – Truong Minh Duc, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Pham Van Troi, Tran Thi Xuan, Nguyen Van Tuc, and Nguyen Trung Truc – are serving long prison terms for “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the penal code. Two other members, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha, were sent directly from prison to exile in Germany. The Vietnamese authorities see any attempt of dissidents or activists to work together or form groups to advocate for human rights and democracy as a threat to the government.
Police of Dak Nong province arrested Dinh Van Phu in January; police of Hau Giang province arrested Dinh Thi Thu Thuy in April; and Hanoi police arrested Pham Chi Thanh (also known as Pham Thanh – Ba Dam Xoe), a writer, in May. All three have been accused of writing and posting on Facebook and other internet platforms views contrary to the party and state and publishing material that opposes the government under article 117 of the penal code.
Three other dissidents, Ma Phung Ngoc Phu, Phan Cong Hai, and Chung Hoang Chuong, were put on trial individually in April and May, convicted, and sentenced to between nine months and five years in prison for their posts on Facebook critical of the government under articles 331 and 117 of the penal code.
“Vietnam has basically made it a crime to use the internet or social media platforms to voice opinions or engage in debate,” Sifton said. “Concerned governments – and social media companies – should be speaking up.”
Pham Chi Dung, 54, is an independent journalist who has written on various social and political issues for years. He has campaigned for democracy, media freedom, political plurality, the rule of law, and the development of civil society. He is a founding member and president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam.
He participated in anti-China and pro-environment protests, attended numerous human rights discussions, and supported fellow activists and political prisoners. Police have frequently harassed, intimidated, and detained him, and imposed house arrest and travel bans. In July 2012, the police arrested and charged him with subversion under article 79 and conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. After holding him for seven months, they dropped the charges and released him in February 2013.
In November 2019, he published a commentary piece on Voice of America and signed a joint letter for nongovernmental groups to urge the EU to postpone the approval of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement until Vietnam improved its abysmal rights record. Less than a week later, on November 21, police arrested him in Ho Chi Minh City and charged him with “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Prominent Members of the European Parliament have called for his release, but the Vietnamese Ambassador to the EU defended his detention and compared limitations on freedom of expression in Vietnam to those in place in Europe.
Nguyen Tuong Thuy, 69, served in the army for 22 years. He began to participate in anti-China protests in the early 2000s, and openly voiced his support for prominent dissidents such as Cu Huy Ha Vu and Le Quoc Quan, who were imprisoned for criticizing the government.
In December 2013, he and other activists founded a humanitarian group, Hoi Bau bi Tuong Than (Association of Gourd and Squash Mutual Assistance), to provide financial and spiritual support for political prisoners and land rights petitioners and their families. In April 2014, he went to the United States to testify before Congress about the lack of media freedom in Vietnam. In July 2014, he helped establish the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Until his arrest in May, he served as vice president of the association. Police have previously harassed, intimidated, assaulted, and detained him, and imposed house arrest and a travel ban.
The police arrested Nguyen Tuong Thuy in Hanoi on May 23, 2020, and charged him with “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under article 117 of the country’s penal code. According to his family account and a record of items confiscated by the police, Nguyen Tuong Thuy smashed his cell phone against a table instead of providing his password to the police.
Le Huu Minh Tuan, 31, is a graduate of Da Nang University and was a student at Hanoi Law University. He joined the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam in August 2014. Under the pen name Le Tuan, he has written about various topics including a study of the development of civil society in Russia, Joshua Wong and the democracy protests in Hong Kong, and politics in Vietnam. He has stated that he wants “to campaign for a better society by contributing a critical voice on every front of life.”
Công an arrested Le Huu Minh Tuan in Quang Nam province on June 12, 2020, and charged him with “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under article 117 of the penal code.
Tran Duc Thach, 69, has written a novel, hundreds of poems, articles, and reports that condemn corruption, injustice, and human rights abuses. A veteran of the People’s Liberation Army, he is a member of the Nghe An Writers Club. His 1988 novel, Doi ban tu (Two Companions in Prison) described the arbitrary nature of Vietnam’s legal system and the inhumane conditions in Vietnamese prisons. Poems published under the title Dieu chua thay (Things Still Untold) speak about life without freedom and justice. His short memoir Ho chon nguoi am anh (A Haunting Collective Grave) retells the story of the mass killing of civilians by northern army soldiers at Tan Lap hamlet in Dong Nai province in April 1975, which he witnessed.
The authorities have repeatedly harassed him since 1975. In 1978, to protest his mistreatment, he set himself on fire and was badly burned. In 2008, he participated in anti-China protests and was arrested in September that year. He was accused of writing “many articles that distort the truth, slander, and badmouth the party and the state, and publishing them on To Quoc magazine,” a clandestine dissident bulletin. In October 2009, a court found him guilty of conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
After completing his prison term in 2011, Tran Duc Thach resumed his criticism of the Communist Party and the state. He joined the Brotherhood for Democracy in April 2013. On April 23, 2020, police arrested him in Nghe An province and charged him with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s government” under article 109 of the penal code. Tran Duc Thach is the 10th member of Brotherhood for Democracy arrested in recent years.
Pham Chi Thanh, 69, is a journalist, writer, and blogger. His first novel, Hau Chi Pheo (About Chi Pheo), published in 1991, condemns the land reform in the north in the 1950s, and portrays local communist leaders as corrupt, immoral, stupid, and cruel. In 2007, he lost his position as the editorial secretary at Voice of Vietnam newspaper for writing anti-China articles. In 2014, he self-published his second novel, Co Hon Xa Nghia (Scarecrow Socialism), which portrayed socialism and the political regime of Vietnam in a highly negative light. In 2019, under the pen name Pham Thanh – Ba Dam Xoe, he published a collection of writing criticizing the Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for being close to China.
On May 21, 2020, the Hanoi police searched Pham Chi Thanh’s house for several hours before arresting him. He was charged with “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under article 117 of the country’s penal code.
Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, 38, uses Facebook to voice support for political prisoners. In June 2018, she participated in a protest against a draft law on special economic zones and the cybersecurity law. A fellow activist wrote on Facebook that she has often voiced her opinions “on social injustice and the national sovereign violated by communist China.”
Police arrested Dinh Thi Thu Thuy on April 18, 2020, in Hau Giang province and charged her with “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under article 117 of the country’s penal code.
According to state media, “since 2018, Dinh Thi Thu Thuy opened many Facebook accounts to edit, post, and share hundreds of materials that propagandize, distort, and smear the honor of the leaders of the Party and State; provoking oppositional thoughts; spreading false news that cause confusion for people in order to oppose the Communist Party of Vietnam and the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”