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Vietnam: Activists Refuse to Engage in Government’s Cat-and-Mouse Game

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Photo credits: Frontline Defenders.

Around noon on November 16, 2017, journalist Pham Doan Trang, a member of our editorial board, found herself stuffed in a car driven by plained-clothes police, some of whom she might have recognized from the dozen of times they have come and kidnapped her in broad daylight before.

Just less than half an hour earlier, she was an invited guest of the EU delegation at the swanky Lotte Building in Hanoi, Vietnam, together with Dr. Nguyen Quang A and two other activists, Nguyen Chi Tuyen and Bui Thi Minh Hang.

All of them, except for Nguyen Chi Tuyen who managed to avoid police detection, was kidnapped by the authorities almost immediately after they left the EU meeting. It was the latest episode in a ludicrous game of cat and mouse that the Vietnamese government had orchestrated for years.

While telling his Facebook friends about his experiences on November 16, 2017, where he was detained illegally and interrogated for five hours, the prominent pro-democracy intellect, Dr. A, also recalled that the police had done this to him 14 times just between last year and now. They also guarded and surveilled his home heavily, as well as almost followed him around all the time.

Doan Trang alone has been taken against her own will to various police stations for interrogation a few times just this year, sometimes for the entire day. This last one on November 16 was for 12 hours, which ended when police drove her home around midnight.

But she was not even certain that night if they were going to actually release her until the car stopped at her house.

Because “the police like ‘the surprise factor'”, she said. “They would love to terrify you and make it impossible for you to expect what was going to happen next. They rule by fear and instilling fear in you is their favorite job. You just have to learn how to become fearless.”

Fearless, determined, and completely devoted to the democracy movement in Vietnam would be the words to describe the woman many people view as one of the leading activists in Vietnam, journalist Pham Doan Trang.

Last year, during Barrack Obama’s May 2017 visit to the country, Doan Trang and Dr. A were also kidnapped by the authorities to prevent them from attending a meeting which was specially arranged by the Obama administration, so that the U.S. president could meet Vietnam’s independent civil society’s representatives.

For Doan Trang, in trying to make it to the meeting with Obama, she had to travel thousands of kilometers by car while still recuperating from a knees surgery. Her fellow activists had to accompany her, and one of them even also assumed the role of her personal nurse because Doan Trang was too weak to take care of herself. All the while, the group had to lay low and went under the radar so that they could avoid police detection.

Her knees injuries also came from the police who had crushed them while breaking up a peaceful march in 2015. Doan Trang and hundreds of other residents of Hanoi were protesting against the city government’s decision to cut down some 6,700 trees.

Back to the morning of May 24, 2016, despite their efforts to divert police attention, secret agents eventually caught up with Doan Trang’s group and found them at a motel about 100 km away from Hanoi, just a couple of hours before the meeting with Obama was supposed to start.

They were all illegally detained and interrogated, and Doan Trang was held in her motel room until those who were guarding her received confirmation that the Obama meeting was long over. Only then they would let her and her friends go.

Dr. A also received similar treatment. The police came to his neighborhood early that day in May 2016, around 6:00 A.M., and snatched him away. They confiscated his electronic devices, stuffed him in their car, and drove him around Hanoi and other local proximities like Hung Yen. After receiving confirmation that Obama had boarded his plane from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, they took Dr. A back to his home and released him around 1:00 P.M. the same day.

Neatly placed name cards left on the meeting table without the faces to match, and their empty chairs during the entire discussion vividly displayed the life of dissidents in Vietnam: The authorities do not hesitate to use whatever available means to subdue their bodies and silence their voices.

And on that day, it particularly seemed as if no single world leader could change such fact, not even the U.S. president.

Things did not change for the better this year either.

Before and during President Trump’s visit to Vietnam earlier this month, dissidents and activists like Dr. A and Doan Trang had reported that they were surveilled and followed by both police and plain-clothes officers. Some said they were even prevented from leaving their houses on certain days when world leaders – like Donald Trump and Xi Jinping – were in town.

So when it came to those events surrounding the kidnapping on November 16, the Vietnamese activists’ community was not exactly taken by surprise. However, because living under such oppression has become a way of life, it also prompted a quick response from them. Civil society organizations were not silenced, instead, they immediately condemned the authorities’ conducts.

Without any probable cause, no arrest warrant, the forceful taking of individual citizens into police custody violates even Vietnam’s own criminal procedures, leave alone international legal norms and practices.

Worse, this has been a routine violation.

Back in December 2015, dissident attorney Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Le Thu Ha were taken into police custody and had been held without trials ever since.

In July 2016, dissidents Nguyen Bac Truyen, Truong Minh Duc, and Pham Van Troi were also taken into custody and later charged with Article 79 of the Penal Code for subversion against the State, together with previously arrested Dai and Ha.

Doan Trang said no one in Vietnam could really tell for sure each time an activist got snatched by the police, that whether it would be just for a few hours of questioning, or the government would press charges and put someone away for a couple of years.

Her take is to treat today as if it would be the last day she could still be a free person and try to make the most of it.

In a country like Vietnam, she said, there would always be so much to do and so much more needed to get done. And getting things done she did.

Doan Trang came to the EU meeting with an updated report on the Formosa environmental disaster, a new report on Vietnam’s Laws on Religion, and an update on the overall human rights situation in the country. She collaborated with others on these projects in 2017, and at the same time, published a book on introduction to politics. All were done while she still had not fully recovered from last year’s knees surgery and constantly been harassed by the authorities.

So perhaps, now is also the time that the Vietnamese authorities must stop playing this insipid game of catch and release.

It was like child-play, Doan Trang described her encounter with the police officers on November 16 on her Facebook status following her release.

The EU delegation initiated this meeting with members of civil society organizations and held it right before their annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam (which will supposedly happen later in December this year). The delegation wished to consult the civil society actors on issues regarding the country’s environment, labor rights, and the overall human rights situation, pending their ongoing EVFTA (EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement) negotiations with Vietnam.

Ironically, all the while the EU delegation were wishing they could learn more about how Vietnam has been implementing human rights, the activists’ illegal arrest and detention happened right under their nose.

The police grabbed these activists as they were leaving the building where the meeting took place. It seems as if the Vietnamese authorities could not wait to put their hands on the nation’s most valuable prizes in trade negotiations with foreign governments.

But to Doan Trang and many of her fellow activists, being viewed as some prized pawns that Vietnam could use to exchange for economic interests, like trade agreements, undermines their cause.

And they refuse to be treated as such.

Rather, Doan Trang wishes the international community views her numerous arrests and others’ arrests and imprisonment during the past three years since she came back to Vietnam (after finishing her fellowship at the University of Southern California), as glaring evidence that the country is still ruled by a one-party dictatorship.

Only by seeing the Vietnamese regime for what it is and not giving it the presumed legitimacy of a democratic government, one that respects human rights and the rule of law, then foreign governments – like the EU – could truly press Vietnam on matters like respecting the people’s will and peaceful democratization process.

No one likes to see this cat-and-mouse game with the police to continue, except for the authorities themselves.

This is how Doan Trang hopes the world would react to the Vietnamese activists’ arrests and imprisonment: Do not request Vietnamese authorities to release one or two activists on an individual basis for humanitarian reasons.

Instead, the international community should call them out on their totalitarian characteristics, their disastrous human rights records, and inform them that their methods of oppressing dissidents and the democracy movement render them an illegitimate regime.

Human Rights

Two Years Later, Formosa Toxic Pollution Still Sends People to Prison in Vietnam

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Hoàng Đức Bình at his appeal hearing on April 24, 2018. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

April 24, 2018| After an approximate three-hour hearing, the Appellate Court of Nghe An Province, Vietnam, affirmed the 14-year sentence for blogger and human rights defender, Hoàng Đức Bình, in relation to the 2017 protests of Catholic fishermen in the areas affected by the Formosa environmental disaster.

Hoàng Đức Bình, a member of the Viet Labor Movement, was sentenced earlier this year by a trial court in February.

The story on the marine pollution caused by Taiwan’s Formosa Hà Tĩnh Steel Corporation broke out two years ago in Vietnam, prompting a nationwide protest in April and May 2016 where people demanded the company closed its steel mill business and ceased all of its operations.

Formosa admitted in May 2016 that they were responsible for the toxic spill from their factory into the local sea in violations of Vietnam’s laws, and agreed to pay 500 million USD for damages in a confidential settlement with the Vietnamese government.

The toxic pollution caused by Formosa is estimated to have affected the livelihood of people along more than 200 km of local seawaters in four coastal provinces of Central Vietnam.

To date, the public in Vietnam still has very little information regarding the settlement agreement while many affected families have yet to receive their shares in the settlement.

Thus, local people continued their protests against Formosa, and Hoàng Đức Bình was among them.

One of the activities Bình participated in, was to travel with fishermen from Quỳnh Lưu District, Nghệ An Province to the local courts in Hà Tĩnh Province – where Formosa is located – to file their civil suits against the company in February 2017, and the authorities of Nghệ An Province arrested him after that.

Attorney Nguyễn Khả Thành, one of Bình’s lawyers, announced the court’s decision on his Facebook today.

According to his lawyer, Hoàng Đức Bình was convicted on two separate charges under Vietnam’s 1999 Penal Code. Article 257 is for “resisting officers acting under their duty,” and Article 258 is for “abusing freedoms and democratic rights to infringe upon the State’s interest or the rights and interests of other entities and individuals.”

Bình was given the maximum sentence – 7 years – for each of the offenses, which implied that the court found his conduct to be “seriously harmful” to the public according to the sentencing guidelines of Articles 257 and 258.

Hoàng Đức Bình maintained that all he did was to accompany the fishermen and a Catholic priest in traveling from Nghệ An to Hà Tĩnh to file their civil suits.

Nghệ An Province was not among the list of the four provinces to receive compensation from Formosa’s 500M USD settlement, and hence, the need for fishermen there to file lawsuits to recover for their alleged damages arose.

On September 25, 2015, just a few months before the story of Formosa marine life disaster broke the news, world leaders have agreed on what now is known as the 17 Sustainable Developmentment Goals. Among them, the seriousness of climate change due to humans’ activities is highlighted, and that countries have agreed, future economic development must go hand in hand with environmental protection and respect for human rights.

After the trial court convicted Bình for a total of 14 years in February this year, UN experts and Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement, condemning his arrest and sentence and demanded his release.

“Imprisoning bloggers and activists for their legitimate work raising public awareness on environmental and public health concerns is unacceptable,” said Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes.

“We call on the authorities to release Hoang Duc Binh and Nguyen Nam Phong who were detained following their efforts to raise awareness and ensure accountability in relation to the spill of the Formosa Steel plant. Authorities must ensure that Viet Nam’s rapid economic expansion does not come at the expense of human rights, in particular those of local communities and workers.”

Another lawyer of Hoàng Đức Bình, Hà Huy Sơn, also wrote on his Facebook today: Bình told him that before his trial in February 2018, he was beaten up by death-row inmates who were put in the same cell as his.

Attorney Sơn also added in the same status, that the only witnesses participated in the trial were the traffic police officers involved in the alleged incident, and none of the video clips capturing the event were allowed to be introduced. He then concluded, the court has violated Vietnam’s criminal procedures and that the verdict is therefore unjust.

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Will #MeToo finally have its break in Vietnam?

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Photo credits: Alex Ivashenko/Unplash.com

In the late evening of April 18, 2018, many journalists in Vietnam began to share on social media a story that could come with the power to shatter the nation’s culture of playing down sexual harassment in the workplace and silencing victim.

A female intern at Tuổi Trẻ newspaper was rumored to have attempted to commit suicide and was hospitalized, after alleging that she was raped by her superior. Tuổi Trẻ is considered one of the largest – if not the largest – state-owned newspaper in Vietnam, owned by the Ho Chi Minh City Chapter of the Communist Youth Union.

By the next day, information about the alleged attacker surfaced, again, via social media.

Tuổi Trẻ – while along with some 800 other state-owned media did not publish an official story – yet did announce that they have suspended journalist Đặng Anh Tuấn – whose pen name is Anh Thoa – the Head of Tuổi Trẻ television news because of the allegations.

But at the same time, the editorial board denied in the same announcement that the intern was admitted to the hospital due to an attempted suicide.

On April 20, 2018, the faculty at the university where the victim is enrolled, delivered a deadly blow to Tuổi Trẻ’s editorial board.

In possibly one of the very first moves ever done by a university in the country for cases involving sexual harassment of their students, the Head of the Department of Journalism and Communications of The Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City sent an official letter to the editorial board at Tuổi Trẻ, demanding them to perform a formal investigation and provide the public with an explanation.

What surprised people was the fact that the faculty of the university stood by their student’s allegations by clarifying and denouncing Tuổi Trẻ’s description of her conditions in their press announcement.

The letter read, in parts:

“We would like to bring your attention to this specific issue so that it could be dealt with directly, that Student ‘Doe’ has endured a prolonged period of psychological trauma which produced catastrophic effects on both her physical and mental health, which in turn deteriorated her health and led her to face the negative decision concerning her life.”

The current story of the female journalist intern from Vietnam resembles very closely the ordeal of Japanese journalist Shiori Ito last year, who went public with the allegation that veteran journalist, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, raped her in April 2015.

But while Ms. Ito currently has to fight not only her ongoing legal battle but also a culture that preferred silence and shaming victims in a country like Japan – where #Metoo could not quite take off – the situation may be different in Vietnam this time.

It is encouraging to see that Vietnamese men and women – especially women – from all walks of life came out in support of the victim. The hashtags #MeToo and #letherdoherjob have been surfacing on Vietnam’s social media since Wednesday’s night, and they keep spreading.

First, other female journalists shared equally horrific stories about how they and their female colleagues too, were harassed and assaulted at works.

The amount of compassion – from journalists who used to work at Tuổi Trẻ – for the victim is also comforting to know. The reactions from many of the popular and veteran journalists on social media in the country are also positive.

The message from the majority was actually quite simple and clear: speak up if you have been a victim or know a victim; and call on Tuổi Trẻ to perform a thorough investigation and be transparent and accountable to the victim and the public.

But make no mistake that the culture of victim blaming and silencing does not exist in the country.

On the contrary, as in any other patriarchal society, Vietnam carries its own baggage, full of prejudice against female victims in most of the sexual harassment and sexual violence cases.

In Vietnam, while sexual harassment in the workplace was recognized in the Labour Code for the first time almost three years ago in May 2015, many victims still do not speak up or come forward with their stories.

One reason could be that there are still no clear and well-defined legal definitions for conducts that would constitute sexual harassment.

According to CARE, an international organization working on gender-based violence in Hanoi, Vietnam, 78.2% of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace are women.

Without a clear legal framework to protect them, female workers in Vietnam dare not to speak up because they are afraid of losing their job.

In 2014, ActionAid International Vietnam reported that their survey of over 2,000 women in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City revealed, that 87% of those answered have been a victim of sexual harassment in public where 67% of the bystanders who witnessed such conducts did nothing to help the victims. 31% of female students also reported that they were sexually harassed in public.

Many of the stories published on social media in Vietnam in the past two days seem to show a pattern. The perpetrators often targetted young interns who are still in school or female employees who are freshly minted from college.

Inexperienced, young, and in need of a job, the victims – who are also facing a culture that got influenced heavily by Confucianism with very strict standards when it comes to gender roles – would incline to choose to quit their jobs and internalize their emotional wounds rather than speaking up against the perpetrator.

Yet, now, there is hope with the latest case involving the Tuổi Trẻ’s intern.

In the past two days, Facebook statuses have shown an influx of stories of similar experiences and offers of support.

People published allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against the Director of the largest legal online research company in the country, Thư viện Pháp luật (The law library) online. This story again was a rumor among the legal professionals but never brought to broader public attention.

Female activists in the country already start calling on people to use the hashtag #MeToo. And while it is true that we still have to continue looking out for development, it is not too early to say that #MeToo has made an important breakthrough in Vietnam where many have begun to say, Vietnam needs #MeeToo now.

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From Nguyễn Văn Đài’s April 5, 2018 Trial – What Constitutes “Overthrowing the People’s Government” in Vietnam?

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April 5, 2018 | Nguyễn Văn Đài – probably one of the most prominent dissidents in Vietnam for almost two decades – received one of the harshest sentences for political dissent in recent years.

A court in Hanoi, Vietnam sentenced Nguyễn Văn Đài to 15 years imprisonment and 5 years probation under house arrest. His colleagues tried and convicted in the same case, also received equally harsh sentences. Nguyễn Trung Tôn, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Trương Minh Đức, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, 11 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Lê Thu Hà, 9 years imprisonment and 2 years probation; Phạm Văn Trội, 7 years imprisonment and 1 year probation.

The 48-year old former attorney was among the first group of Vietnamese lawyers who took up political cases in the early 2000’s and defended dissidents, as well as those who were persecuted for exercising religious freedom.

Đài was the type of lawyer who would defend those accused of the very same crime he is facing today: “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s government.”

This crime is infamously known among international human rights groups and foreign embassies as the Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code 1999.

While carrying capital punishment as the maximum sentence, Article 79 however, utterly lacks a clear, well-defined description of conducts which would constitute a person’s criminal liability, and as such, making it impossible for people to cry out mea culpa.

The law only states that “a person conducting activities to form or participate in any organization to overthrow the people’s government shall be punished as follows,” and then immediately dwells into specifying the sentencing guidelines from twelve years, twenty years, life imprisonment, up to the death sentence for the main perpetrator, and five to fifteen years for those who act as accomplices.

Because of this ambiguity per se in its language, Article 79 had faced strong criticism from the international community over the years, especially during the last Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in January 2014.

Critics continue pointing out, that along with Articles 88 and 258 of the Penal Code, the government has used these criminal provisions almost exclusively against political dissidents and pro-democracy activists, taking advantage of the vague language of these codes to criminalize peaceful protests and suppress political dissent.

Facing such international pressure during the 2014 UPR, Vietnam agreed to amend Article 79, and they did, in 2015.

However, except for some minor, cosmetic changes such as the number of the code section from 79 to 109, and adding a category for those who are “preparing to commit the crime” with the punishment ranging from one to five years imprisonment, the remaining of the “new” Article 109 is taken verbatim from Article 79.

In short, we still have to look to actual cases to define which conducts would constitute the crime of “overthrowing the people’s government” in Vietnam, and in Đài’s case today, such conducts would be:

“Opening an office, having a website to operate, developing a ‘shortening manifesto’, having a structured organization, having internal and external affairs strategy, operating to increase membership, capacity, …; abusing the right to promote ‘democracy, human rights,’ ‘civil society’ to conceal the objectives of the Brotherhood for Democracy … waiting for the appropriate timing to openly operate in opposition of the government through changing the political structure in Vietnam, developing ‘pluralism with multiple parties’ and a government with ‘separation of powers’ to overthrow the people’s government while using a private sector economy as its basis.”

The above paragraph was an excerpt taken from the Conclusion section at page 10 of the 16-page long indictment issued on December 31, 2017 against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his five colleagues, Lê Thu Hà (who was arrested together with Đài on December 16, 2015), Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, Nguyễn Trung Tôn, Trương Minh Đức, and Phạm Văn Trội.

The new Penal Code of Vietnam was not taken effective until January 1, 2018. Thus, Đài and his colleagues were charged with Article 79 of the old code.

Nguyễn Văn Đài has never shied away from his political ambitions and his outspoken criticism of the current regime, especially regarding the political monopoly the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has over the country.

In 2006, Đài openly called for the establishment of other political parties and forming political opposition to challenge the VPC’s ruling. According to a research on Vietnam’s democratization advocates conducted by the Australian scholar, Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, Nguyễn Văn Đài would fall under the category of those who chose to confront the regime head-on.

He holds a firm personal belief that every Vietnamese people do have the intellectual capacity and enough knowledge to participate in a pluralistic form of governance with multiple parties.

He previously wrote that Vietnam had had other political parties in the past, during the 1930’s and the early independent days from 1945-1946. Notably, in the South of Vietnam – before the fall of Saigon – political parties were very active. Moreover, Đài always believes that the current Constitution supports the formation of other political parties besides the VPC.

His direct challenge to the ruling party’s power resulted in a conviction for “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 in 2007, where he served four years in prison and was released in 2011.

Coincidentally, 2011, the year in which Đài was released, also marked the beginning of an unprecedented rise of the young pro-democracy and pro-human rights movement in Vietnam.

Starting in the summer of 2011, Vietnamese people – especially youths – swarmed the streets of major cities such as Hanoi and Saigon, protesting against China’s aggression due to the incident involving the cutting of Vietnam’s Binh Minh vessel’s cable cab in the South China Sea.

People organized protests through Facebook’s pages, and statuses, calling for massive turnouts all over the country like never seen before, at least not anything like that had happened since after the Vietnam War was over in 1975.

At first, the government allowed the protests, but when faced with thousands of youths on the streets, they quickly decided to change course and started cracking down on peaceful protesters. Yet this very conduct of the government had opened doors to another era of civil disobedience in Vietnam: the birth of the independent civil society organizations (CSO) movement inside the country. Many of the protesters on those streets in Vietnam six years ago are now the prominent faces of the pro-democracy movement.

The undeterred Nguyễn Văn Đài quickly caught on to this phenomenon and organized his own CSO – the Brotherhood for Democracy (which got named in the indictment) – continuing pushing for political changes through challenging the one-party rule. A person with charisma, Đài again rose to the occasion, becoming the familiar face during those meetings with foreign officials and diplomats from many embassies in Hanoi.

And that was documented in his December 2017 indictment as well, where it detailed how he was able to connect with foreign institutions and individuals to secure funding for his CSO – activities that are normal for any non-governmental organization around the world. The indictment even named diplomats from the U.S. and Germany as people who acted as his references.

It also worths noting that almost two years ago, Vietnam’s National Assembly attempted to pass a law on association with restrictions on receiving “foreign funds.” However, such efforts failed when faced with stern opposition from NGOs and CSOs from Vietnam, both registered and non-registered.

Thus, except for the indictment in Đài’s case making it out to be a crime, Vietnam’s laws have yet to prohibit NGOs to receive foreign financial aids.

But the reality remains, that as of right now, Vietnam still only has one political party – the Communist Party – and Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues’ latest trial and conviction demonstrate that any efforts aiming at forming a political opposition would constitute conduct punishable by very long and harsh sentences.

In December 2008, many people gasped as China sentenced Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years for “suspicion of subversion against the state.”

Now almost ten years later, in April 2018, using an eerily similar charge against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues, Vietnam has demonstrated that it too, does not yield to international pressure and would even go the extra miles in sending political dissents to prisons for even longer terms than its communist big brother.

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