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Human Rights

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

The 88 Project: Bringing the silent voices of Vietnam to a larger audience

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A screenshot from The 88 Project's database of Vietnamese activists in prison and at risk.

As a Vietnamese overseas student working on her Ph.D. at Indiana University’s School of Law, Huong Nguyen was focused on her academic career but couldn’t stop thinking about the activist community she was involved with in Vietnam.

This explains why she frequently reached out to students and gave presentations around campus, one of which was the student chapter of Amnesty International.

It was there that she met Kaylee Uland, a blonde, blue-eyed undergraduate whose life growing up in Indiana was far removed from Vietnam and the communist government’s litany of human rights violations that she heard from Huong that day.

“This was one of my first exposures to learning about political prisoners, and it gnawed at me learning that some people were in prison solely because of expressing their political or religious beliefs or a blog post,” Kaylee responded in an email.

Fired up by Huong’s talk, Kaylee began to dedicate herself to advocacy efforts alongside Huong, conducting public outreach efforts on campus and letter-writing campaigns. Around the same time, Huong connected with Ella Gancarz, a filmmaker who wanted to create a documentary about human rights in Vietnam. At the junction of these partnerships, The 88 Project was conceived in 2012.

The group takes its name from Article 88, one of the provisions of the 1999 Criminal Code traditionally used to prosecute activists. The 88 Project’s logo is a pair of handcuffs, which also represents the number ‘88’. According to their website, “the slightly open handcuff in our logo symbolizes the fact that not even prison bars can hold back the ideas of hope, human rights, and democracy.”

From left to right: Ella Gancarz, Huong Nguyen and Kaylee Uland, the founders of The 88 Project. Source: the88project.org.

Over the years, the members have volunteered and worked part-time, on top of their full-time jobs, to put together a weekly newsletter reporting and analyzing the news.

“I believe that regardless of how busy we are if we care enough about something, we can make time for it,” Huong responded in an email. “I am grateful that our team members care enough about our mission to dedicate the time for the project despite their busy career and personal life.”

Kaylee, who is now research director, was the driving force behind the recent expansion of their Database of Persecuted Activists in Vietnam, which now has functions that make it easier for users to navigate. The team has also unveiled the Map of Human Rights Violations.

“We wanted to allow users to interact with the data in multiple ways, depending on their needs and learning style,” Kaylee said.

Although Kaylee doesn’t speak Vietnamese, she is proud to be part of a team that provides an up-to-date English-based source of news on human rights issues, political prisoners, and activists at risk in Vietnam.

“One of our largest challenges has always been gathering, verifying, and processing data from inside Vietnam,” she said. With Huong’s network and Vietnamese language skills, the 88 Project has maintained a strong backbone of research integrity through carefully vetting the information that goes into their news, database, and map. The group also takes security precautions to protect their sources, in-country contributors, and data.

Online activity is heavily monitored and independent media does not exist in Vietnam. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam sits at #176 out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press, one notch higher than China but one below Sudan.

Despite the challenges facing human rights defenders in Vietnam, the 88 Project finds success in big and small ways, such as when its work is used to advocate for the release of prisoners or when the nonprofit organization is cited in news and journal articles.

“There can be a lot of bad news before you get to hear any good news,” Kaylee said in an audio recording with Memria and the Norwegian Human Rights Fund. “But as a privileged person, as a white, educated, female American, the least I can do is to try to use my voice in some way to bring the very powerful and strong, but unfortunately, silenced voices of human rights defenders working on the front lines to a larger audience.”


Linh Nguyen is a contributor to The Vietnamese. Linh can be reached at linhnguyen1251992@gmail.com and Twitter @LinhVietnam4.

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Freedom of expression

Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“I have lost my license to practice law forever, with no apparent recourse available,” Vo An Don, one of Vietnam’s most well-known lawyers in recent years, lamented on Facebook on April 9, 2019. Last week, a high court in Danang ruled that the minister of justice’s decision to affirm his disbarment in 2018 remained effective and final.

The 42-year-old lawyer from Phu Yen province, however, is widely recognized for his fierce advocacy. In the past five years, Don took on cases involving some of the more popular political dissidents, such as blogger Mother Mushroom. But he gained the most public attention when he represented the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu,  a man who died while in custody after being beaten by the police in 2014. Don had demonstrated tireless efforts in bringing those who committed police brutality to justice in Kieu’s case. Yet on November 26, 2017, he was disciplined by his provincial bar association, and his bar license was taken away. In April 2019, the People’s High Court in Danang sided with the disciplinary decision and let the decision stayed.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, the reason for the disciplinary action was because of Don’s “abuse of democratic freedoms to write and to give interviews to foreign press and broadcasters to defame lawyers, the prosecutorial bodies, the (Communist) Party and the State of Vietnam with the intent to incite, propagandize, and misrepresent the truth which had negatively affected the reputation of the Party, the State, the prosecutorial bodies, and other Vietnamese lawyers.”

The Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association’s decision to disbar him came only a few days before the appeal trial of Mother Mushroom, which was on November 30, 2017. Don stated at the time in an interview with BBC-Vietnamese that such a decision was probably politically motivated.

It was not the first time, however, that his local bar association had attempted to discipline Vo An Don. In another interview with RFA in 2014, Don already disclosed that the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association had tried, unsuccessfully, to disbar him a few times during his representation of the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu. But Don was unfazed and continued with the case, successfully bringing the offending officers to justice.

The case of Ngo Thanh Kieu was probably the first one in recent years where the court convicted a group of police officers for causing death to a suspect in custody. Public opinion, however, was split about the sentences handed down to the former police. Some people thought that the jail terms were too light as the longest one was only a five-year-imprisonment. At the same time, many people also saw Vo An Don as the lawyer who fought for the people’s rights and stood against what they perceived as a corrupt system.

The unintended popularity could be the root of the troubles that later followed the lawyer, who practiced law in one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. Don is often dubbed the “farmer lawyer” in social media because he still has to continue farming to support his family. Practicing law in an honest way, he said, cost him opportunities to “get rich” because he refused to be part of the widespread corruption in Vietnam’s judiciary. His popularity and his candid words about the profession together made him an unpopular person among his fellow attorneys. His allegation of corruption among lawyers was one of the statements that cost him his bar license, as reported by The Law newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City on May 24, 2018.

After the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association issued its disciplinary decision on November 26, 2017, Vo An Don petitioned the Vietnam Bar Federation in December 2017 for a review.  Over 100 Vietnamese lawyers signed a petition asking the Federation to stand by its member’s freedom of expression and stated that the disciplinary action would be a dangerous precedent for the law profession. The Federation still rejected his petition on May 21, 2018.

Don continued to appeal his case with the Ministry of Justice later last year, but the minister of justice also decided against him.

Finally, in December 2018, Don initiated a lawsuit against the administrative decision to uphold the disciplinary action by the minister of justice. But as stated, the court system also did not side with him and effectively allowed the disbarment to remain in effect. The high court in Danang agreed that the dismissal of Don’s case by a lower court was proper.

Both courts had reasoned that the minister of justice’s decision to uphold the disbarment was done within a professional and social organization – the Vietnam Bar Federation. Such a decision did not fall under the categories of subject matters that could be decided in a lawsuit against an administrative order.

At this time, even Vo An Don does not seem to think that there could be any other recourse for him. In the meantime, Don’s case has raised sufficient concerns about the freedom of expression of lawyers in Vietnam and whether their human rights will continue to be subjected to professional disciplinary actions.

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Human Rights

Online Campaign “If not NOW then WHEN?” Seeks To Stop Sexual Abuse In Vietnam

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Vietnamese Facebookers supported the "If not NOW then WHEN?" campaign. Photo Credits: Facebook Ngoc Diep.

An uncommonly successful online campaign is happening in Vietnam with thousands of signatures and with momentum is still going strong. The campaign – “If not NOW then WHEN?” – initiated by seven civil society groups and organizations on Change.org, is the Vietnamese people’s latest and loudest response to a series of highly publicized cases of sexual abuse and violence against women and children uncovered recently in the country.

In addition to signing this petition, hundreds of Facebookers also changed their avatars to include a frame with the slogan “If not NOW then WHEN?” and the hashtag #nhanpham200k (dignity200k) to promote this campaign.

The “200k” hashtag refers to the 200,000 VND amount that the Hanoi police has fined the perpetrator in a recent sexual assault case in March 2019. Although the perpetrator was captured on an elevator’s security cameras while assaulting a woman by kissing her on the mouth, the authorities decided to treat the case as an administrative violation and did not file charges against him. Such a decision has angered the entire nation that has watched the story where his criminal actions unfold on social media, leading some activists and organizations to decide to take action.

The “If not NOW then WHEN?” campaign was launched within a few days after the administrative fine of 200,000 VND was made public. And because the organizers want to stress that a person’s dignity is worth more than the 200,000 VND fine, they have included the hashtag #nhanpham200.

Citing loopholes in the law which allow for unjust decisions such as the 200,000 VND case, the campaign calls on citizens to demand Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan and other members of Vietnam’s National Assembly to take action and change the laws. Their goal is to appeal to the legislative branch to make changes in the Penal Code so that it would be more effective in both punishing the perpetrators in sexual harassment and sexual violence cases and preventing future sexual crimes.

According to Facebooker Ngoc Diep, one of the first activists who has initiated this campaign, the campaigners will collect signatures until early May 2019. Then, they will send them directly to the National Assembly before the beginning of their next congressional meeting – which is expected to commence on May 20, 2019.

By April 9, 2019, more than 13,000 people have signed the petition even though Change.org recently has been blocked in a few areas in Vietnam. It means that those who have signed the petition from Vietnam must take an extra step, which is to get over the firewall before they can add their names to the petition.

It also means that the demands contained within the petition are of great concern for a lot of Vietnamese people.

Why is there such a tremendous response from the public to this petition that led to so many people taking the time and making an effort to make a point about this issue?

Ngoc Diep explained that the campaign has identified with the people’s realization that there are loopholes in the law, which renders the system ineffective in bringing justice to the victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the country.

Recently, several cases of sexual attacks on women and children have caused outrage in society, and yet the legal system was unable to bring the perpetrator to justice. The case in the elevator with the 200,000 VND fine was just one of many such cases.

In another case, a teacher was accused of inappropriately touching his fifth-grade students, but the authorities claimed that his conduct did not fall under the current definition of sexual abuse. The teacher went unpunished.

A suspect in a brutal beating and raping of a 9-year-old girl was allowed bail because the authorities found his conduct did not fall under the “extremely severe” category that would demand pre-trial detention.

Just a few days after the petition “If not NOW then WHEN?” had started, another video clip appeared on social media showing a toddler being grabbed and kissed by an older male stranger in an elevator in Ho Chi Minh City.

The campaign and its supporters have felt an even stronger sense of urgency now, that such change is not only needed but is also inevitable. They want to raise public awareness about sexual harassment and sexual abuse and demand that “the legitimate rights and interests of the people” be protected.

As such, they are hoping that more signatures will be added to the petition in the upcoming days. It is hoped that the increasing public pressure that comes with the petition will then force lawmakers to face this current social crisis of sexual harassment and sexual abuse and institute changes.

Among the demands, the campaign emphasizes the critical role of civil society organizations in raising community awareness, as well as preventing sexual crimes.

The campaigners are especially concerned with the lack of specific and coherent definitions for a variety of conduct that would constitute sexual harassment in the current Penal Code. They also pointed out that the law should also provide for better protection mechanisms for victims of sexual abuse and violent sexual crimes.

The Penal Code is not the only one that needs changes, according to these activists. The Civil Code also needs to be reformed with the guidelines for victims to receive restitution being improved.

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