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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

Latest Review Under UN’s Human Rights Treaty Body Highlighted Vietnam’s Dismal Records

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The ICCPR Review of Vietnam During the HRC's 125th Session. Photo credits: Screenshot from UN's WebTV

“How do you explain or assess that Vietnam is ranked 175 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontiers’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index?”

The question from Mr. Fathalla, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, succinctly summed up Vietnam’s human rights situation, especially when it came to those rights involving the people’s freedom of expression.

Between March 11 and 12, 2019 and during their 125th session, the Human Rights Committee completed their review of Vietnam’s compliance and implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Vietnam was 13 years overdue in submitting its third report for the review, which was due in August 2004. As a result, there was a 15-year-gap between the last review and this recent one.

Nevertheless, the questions from the Committee during the two-day-proceeding painted an accurate, but very worrying picture of the human rights situation in the country right now.

The Committee questioned specific contents of the new 2018 Cybersecurity Law and the 2016 Press Law regarding their possible violations of Article 19 of the ICCPR on freedom of expression.

There was scrutiny over the independence of the judiciary in Vietnam where all judges seemed to be members of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Lawyers were disbarred for being human rights defenders themselves, or just by merely took on politically sensitive cases, such as those involved police brutality and torture committed by the state’s officials.

The most recently amended Penal Code has taken a step further in limiting and curtailing the practice of law when it requires lawyers to make mandatory reports on their clients in a few specific instances – for example when it involves a “national security” crime – or risk being prosecuted themselves.

At the same time, the penal code sections relating to “national security” are used almost exclusively against human rights defenders and political dissidents in Vietnam. As such, the mandatory report requirement seems to especially deny this group of people their right to a fair trial with competent legal assistance.

There were also concerns from the Committee over the fact that police brutality had become more prevalent in recent years due to impunity.

Prison conditions in general, and especially the treatment of human rights defenders in prison, were also brought up repeatedly during the proceeding, where the Committee rejected Vietnam’s attempt to brush off the issue by offering evidence of some handful visits to prisons by foreign embassies in recent years.

The Committee’s members instead referred to the UN’s Committee Against Torture’s recommendations after the review of Vietnam under the Convention in November 2018, where numerous alarming issues regarding the poor conditions in Vietnam’s prisons were addressed, such as the use of shackle and solitary confinement.

Vietnam was named as one of the world’s top executioners in 2016 by an Amnesty International’s report on the death penalty, after the Ministry of Public Security released some rare statistics in February 2017, stating that 429 prisoners were executed between August 8, 2013, and June 30, 2016, at an average rate of 147 executions per year.

At the review, facts involved the wrongful convictions involving two death-row inmates, Ho Duy Hai and Le Van Manh, were also addressed in details by members of the Committee.

The rights of indigenous people in Vietnam also took center after reports on their religious persecution and forced statelessness were submitted to the Committee in advance by NGOs working on these issues. Among them were Boat People SOS, Viet Nam Coalition Against Torture (VN-CAT), Council of Indigenous Peoples in Today’s Viet Nam (CIP-TVN), The Advocates for Human Rights and Tai Studies Center, Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, and Hmong United for Justice.

The UN received close to thirty shadow reports from civil society organizations before the review, which included both independent groups and NGOs that have an affiliation with the Vietnamese government.

The Human Rights Committee is expected to issue their concluding observations in the coming months.

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Human Rights

EU Officials Raised Concern Over Worrying Human Rights Situation In Vietnam

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EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström and representatives from independent Vietnamese CSOs. Photo Credits: Commissioner Malmström's official Twitter account.

“The human rights situation in Vietnam is worrying,” according to Commissioner for Trade of the European Union, Cecilia Malmström, after her meeting with independent Vietnamese civil society organizations on March 14, 2019.

When announcing the adoption of the EU-Vietnam trade and investment agreements (EV-FTA) in October 2018, Commissioner Malmström had hoped that such agreements would “help spread European high standards and create possibilities for in-depth discussions on human rights and the protection of citizens.”

However, during recent months, the human rights situation in Vietnam did not improve.

Instead, it became more concerning.

Commissioner Malmström is not the only EU official who has expressed concerns over the worrying trend of suppression on human rights in Vietnam in recent months.

32 MEPs from across the political spectrum of the EU Parliament signed a letter back in September 2018, calling on the EU to demand specific human rights improvements from Vietnam before the ratification of the EV-FTA.

EU Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, Maya Kocijancic, also confirmed in an interview with Radio Free Asia earlier this month, that during the 8th EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue held in Brussels on March 4, 2019, the EU had addressed specific cases of prisoners of conscience with the Vietnamese delegation.

Ms. Kocijancic also stated during the same interview that the annual dialogue “raised a wide range of issues related to freedom  of expression, cybersecurity, the death penalty, environmental and labor rights, cooperation within the United Nations framework.”

As of today, The 88 Project’s database documented 21 Vietnamese activists are held in pre-trial detention. There are 218 other activists currently serving a prison sentence; among them, 30 are female activists and 51 indigenous political prisoners.

According to VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment), one of the organizations attended the meeting with Commissioner Malmström, the unconditional and in-country release of Vietnamese prisoners of conscience must be the first human rights benchmark before the ratification of the EV-FTA.

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Human Rights

Wife of Arbitrarily Detained Facebooker: He Only Exercised His Constitutional Rights

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Tran Thanh Phuong and his wife, Le Thi Khanh, with one of the couple's daughter. Photo courtesy: Le Thi Khanh.

The Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, announced today at a preparatory meeting for the DPRK-US summit in Hanoi that the country needs to “prove to the whole world that it is peaceful, friendly and orderly … as (the core of) its culture, a way of life of Vietnamese people.”

The price to pay for such an image could very well be the freedom of those who dare to exercise their constitutional rights like Le Thi Khanh’s husband, Tran Thanh Phuong.

For almost six months, Le Thi Khanh, a garment maker in Ho Chi Minh City, has not been able to see her husband who was taken away by the local authorities since September 1, 2018.

Her husband is Tran Thanh Phuong, a Facebooker who has been in police detention for attempting to participate in a protest during the celebration of Vietnam’s National Day.

As a pre-emptive strike, the police “invited” Phuong to come to the local station to talk to them, but they then detained him without a formal arrest warrant, according to his wife.

At first, Khanh could still bring her husband food and meet him once a day at the local police station of their ward.

But on September 7, 2018, when she went to see her husband, the police told her they had transferred him to a different location yet refused to tell her where.

Khanh then went to the District’s Police Department to look up her husband’s whereabouts.

There, the police asked her to provide them with her marriage certificate before allowing visitation. Once she did, they promised her that she would get to see him on October 10, 2018.

Came October 10, 2018, Khanh packed some food to bring to her husband with high hopes that she could see him, but again she was disappointed.

The District’s police told her they had transferred him to No. 4, Phan Dang Luu Street which is the detention center under the Ho Chi Minh City Police Department, The Security Investigative Unit.

She immediately went to No. 4 Detention Center and was able to confirm that her husband was, indeed, held there.

Since then, she was only able to send him food every two months, but the authorities have yet to allow visitation.

She also has no idea what crimes her husband has been charged with because no one would tell her anything.

But Khanh was aware that Phuong was using his Facebook to look up information relating to Vietnam’s Constitution, as well as the exercise of their constitutional rights.

“My husband often read different groups’ postings on Facebook about disseminating our Constitution. He said we should read to gain our own knowledge so that when the police arrest us, we could know what rights we have and demand them,” Khanh told us.

Not being to know how her husband has been doing was an ordeal which Khanh went through in the past six months while trying to make end’s meet to raise the couple’s two daughters, entirely on her own now.

Tran Thanh Phuong has effectively been held incommunicado by various police forces in Ho Chi Minh City since September 7, 2018.

Khanh also told us that on October 15, 2010, the police even tried to summon her 13-year-old daughter to come in for questioning on the 19th regarding their investigation of the case.

She, of course, refused to comply with the outrageous request.

Phuong was alleged to be a member of a dissident group calls “Constitution” (Hiến pháp).

The group’s members have been arrested and detained arbitrarily by the Vietnamese authorities from September 2018 to date.

While the members acknowledged that they participated in the June 10, 2018’s mass protest against the then draft bills of the cybersecurity and the Special Economic Zones law, all information surrounding their activities – including those coming from the authorities – could not openly show their criminal liability.

One of them has been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment.

In that case, the defendant – Huynh Truong Ca – was alleged by the government to have live-streamed 40 clips on Facebook criticizing the government, the Communist Party, and calling on people to exercise their constitutional right: participate in demonstrations.

Such conduct, however, not only could not constitute the legal merits of a crime but also was a person’s political opinion which international human rights law protects.

Notwithstanding international law standards, the government of Vietnam often violates even its constitution while suppressing people during protests and arresting them.

The 2013 Constitution guarantees all Vietnamese people the right to assemble and to demonstrate peacefully.

The absence of a valid constitutional protection mechanism, however, has allowed the government’s unlawful activities continued.

Crowd control’s measures in Vietnam were recently broadcasted internationally when the Hanoi’s security police detained and questioned the Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump impersonators duo ahead of the DRPK-US summit.

The police’s intention to avoid any remote possibility of people gathering during the event was apparent when they demanded the two’s itinerary while in Hanoi and had since surveilled their movements.

Spontaneous gatherings in public are frown upon by the VCP because its leaders could not and would not risk the chance – however slim – of having a protest breaks out, especially during a highly observed event like the Kim-Trump peace summit.

Since September 2018 to date, The Vietnamese has documented over a dozen incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention. More than half of them involved the members of the Constitution group where Tran Thanh Phuong is a member.

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