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Human Rights

Wrongful Death Sentences Sent A Loud and Urgent Cry to Reform Vietnam’s Criminal Procedures

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Nguyen Thi Loan, mother of Ho Duy Hai. Photo credit: Nguyen Lan Thang.

Wrongful convictions almost always share a few disturbingly similar characteristics in Vietnam. First, they mostly happened in rural areas. And second, the majority of the people involved, be it the victims, witnesses, or the alleged perpetrators – often are poor, and some even have no or very limited education.

In any case, the defendants quickly found themselves victims of police brutality, and thus were coerced to confess. Most of the time, no effective legal counsel would be available. Worse of, it would be certain that the court will convict with little or close to zero credible evidence and hastily sentence them to the maximum terms. There have been many cases where defendants were sentenced to death based on almost nothing but the very confession which the police had beaten them into giving up.

The need for criminal justice reform in the country is therefore real and urgent. And the death penalty cases below, featuring the stories of three young men in their twenties, all convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated to await their executions during the past decade, would convince even the toughest critics.

Ho Duy Hai:

Ho Duy Hai at one of his court hearings. Photo credit: Thanh Nien Newspaper.

Hai was a 23-year-old recent college graduate, eagerly waiting to start his new life when he got convicted of double homicide and robbery in 2008.

Social media in Vietnam came to know of Hai’s case when his younger sister, Thuy, created a Facebook group in November 2014 to raise awareness about his conviction and plead for his life. At that time, Hai’s family had just received notice from the Long An Province Police Department that they would execute him on December 5, 2014.

Devastated by the news, his family then desperately turned to social media, the dissidents, and various independent human rights groups to save Hai’s life, and Vietnamese people began to learn about one of the most peculiar death penalty cases in Vietnam. Due to pressure from both the public in Vietnam and international organizations, on December 4, 2014, the then President Truong Tan Sang personally ordered a halt of his execution – which would have been carried out the next day.

Despite the fact that a special team of jurists and legislative members was set up to investigate wrongful convictions in 2014 and 2015, and that the Deputy Commissioner of the National Assembly’s Judiciary Committee at the time – Le Thi Nga – already reported to Congress there were serious violations committed by the police and prosecution in Hai’s case, he had yet been granted a review and remained incarcerated.

By next March, it would have been ten years since the day his life as a free man was abruptly ended. And as flimsy as they are, the so-called evidence that sent Hai to the firing squad still soundly stand.

The case dated back to the night of January 14, 2008, when two young women were killed at the Cau Voi Post Office in Thu Thua District, Long An Province. According to the case file, the victims’ throats were cut, and one of them received blow injuries to the head while another one was almost decapitated. Some 1,400,000 VND (approximately 70 USD), mobile phones, and pieces of jewelry were allegedly taken from the scene by the perpetrator.

On March 22, 2008, Hai was arrested and tried for the double-murder even when none of the fingerprints left at the scene matches his, no physical evidence to tie him to the case, and there were testimonies that other men were seen at the crime scene during the night of the murders.

Even more disastrous, according to the indictment, one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Nguyen Van Thu, later purchased a knife at a local market and gave it to the police, vowing that it would have matched the size and shape of the knife from the scene. That was enough for the police to conclude that they had sufficiently determined the murder weapon. What happened next was more bizarre, this very “purchased” weapon was indeed admitted into evidence to be parts of the case file that convicted Ho Duy Hai of double-murder and sentenced him to death in December 2008.

During their visitation, Hai told his mother and aunt that he was beaten up by the police and tortured during his pre-trial detention to confess to the crimes. Also according to his family, Hai’s appeal process began immediately after the conviction, but the court system, again and again, denied review.

With his family, including his mother, aunt, and younger sister, on his side, Hai continues on what seems to be an indefinite journey to fight for justice.

Le Van Manh:

Le Van Manh. Photo credit: Cong an Nhan dan Newspaper.

Approximately one year after the campaign to save Ho Duy Hai appeared on Vietnam’s social media, in October 2015, people again learned of the facts in yet another irregular wrongful death penalty case.

On October 16, 2015, the family of death-row inmate Le Van Manh received a written notice from the People Court of Thanh Hoa Province, informing them about procedures to pick up and bury his body after execution, which was scheduled for October 26, 2015. Le Van Manh was convicted of robbery, rape, and murder of a 14-year old girl in July 2005.

On October 25, 2015, Amnesty International issued a statement on behalf of Le Duy Manh, urging the Vietnamese government to spare his life and investigate allegations that he was tortured in police custody. Like Ho Duy Hai, Manh’s execution was halt due to domestic and international pressure. And also like Hai, Manh continued to be incarcerated since then, with not much progress in his plea for justice.

From 2005-2008, Le Van Manh had undergone a total of seven court hearings, including three trials, three appeals, and one cassation trial. In all of his court hearings, Manh vehemently denied all of the charges and retracted his earlier confessions, alleging that he had to confess after being beaten by both the police officers investigating his case and his cellmates who were acting under police’s instructions.

According to the case’s official records, the victim, Hoang Thi Loan, whose date of birth was August 15, 1991, was raped and murdered in Yen Thinh Ward, Yen Dinh District, Thanh Hoa Province in March 2005. The authorities believed that Loan went to the bank of the Cau Chay river within the Yen Thinh Ward, to use the bathroom on March 21, 2005. By nightfall, her family realized that she had disappeared. The family organized a search for her but to no avail. By the 13:00 hour on March 22, 2005, Loan’s body turned up at the bank of Cau Chay river within Xuan Minh Ward, Tho Xuan District, also in Thanh Hoa Province.

On March 30, 2005, the Thanh Hoa Province’s Forensics Office concluded that Hoang Thi Loan died from strangulation with signs of water asphyxia and that the victim was raped before she was killed.

On April 20, 2005, Le Van Manh, who was 23-year old at the time, was arrested pursuant to a temporary arrest warrant issued by the investigative police unit of Dong Nai Province for an entirely different matter, suspected robbery and attempting to flee criminal custody, earlier that month.

However, according to the criminal complaint, just three days later, by April 23, 2005, a confession letter, claimed to be written by Le Van Manh while in police detention addressing to his father, had surfaced, admitting guilt to the rape and murder of Hoang Thi Loan. The police happened to be in time to confiscate this letter and used it as evidence of Manh’s guilt. The criminal complaint further showed that investigation relied on the testimony of a 9-year old child – who had limited education and was interviewed by the police without parental permission – for leads.

As in Ho Duy Hai’s case, there was no physical evidence to tie Manh to the alleged rape and murder. The only evidence presented by the prosecution was Manh’s confession letter, which he already retracted. Nevertheless, Le Van Manh was charged with the rape and murder of Hoang Thi Loan, tried, and sentenced to death.

Nguyen Van Chuong:

Nguyen Van Chuong. Photo credit: Giaoduc.net.vn.

Nguyen Van Chuong’s official case file reveals that it could probably be the strongest one among these three to demonstrate how police brutality affected criminal investigation in Vietnam because not only the suspects but witnesses also fell victims to such cruel practice.

The only evidence used to convict Chuong was his and his co-defendants’ confessions. These confessions, again, were alleged by the defendants that the police obtained them through torture.

His parents recalled how Chuong had described the police would handcuff him so that he was hanging and only the tips of his toes would touch the floor, then they would beat him repeatedly until he confessed.

Court’s dockets confirmed that Chuong and other defendants had all petitioned for review after the appellate court confirmed their convictions in November 2008. From prison, on April 7, 2009, Chuong sent his mother a t-shirt where he had used bamboo toothpicks to sew on his plea of innocence.

Not only the defendants alleged that they were tortured by the police during the investigation to confess, but Chuong’s alibi witnesses had also come forward and alleged they were physically abused by the authorities.

According to the police’s investigation file, in the night of July 14, 2007, around the 21:00 hour, a high ranking police officer, Nguyen Van Sinh, of the Hai An District, Hai Phong City, was attacked by knives and suffered severe injuries. Officer Sinh died at 8:00 A.M. the next morning from the wounds he received during the attack.

By August 3, 2007, police arrested Nguyen Van Chuong, who was born in 1983 and a resident of Trung Tuyen village, Binh Dan Ward, Kim Thanh District, Hai Duong Province. At the time of his arrest, Chuong was a factory worker in Hai Phong, married, and had no criminal records. Chuong was also the owner of Thien Than coffee shop in Hai An District, Hai Phong City. Together with Chuong, two other men, Do Van Hoang and Vu Toan Trung, were also arrested.

On August 4, 2007, Chuong’s 20-year-old younger brother – Nguyen Trong Doan – obtained written declarations from various witnesses who swore under oath that they had met with Chuong at his hometown, in Kim Thanh District of Hai Duong City at the time Officer Sinh was attacked in Hai Phong City, which is some 40 km away. In other words, Chuong had an alibi and witnesses to support it.

But instead of investigating the validity of his alibi, the police then arrested Chuong’s brother, Doan, alleging that Doan was manipulating evidence and witnesses to help Chuong conceal his crimes. Ironically, Doan was arrested at the police station in Hai Phong City when he came to provide the police with testimonies from witnesses who were with his brother during the night of the alleged crime.

One of Chuong’s alibi witnesses was Tran Quang Tuat, who later told Tien Phong newspaper in November 2007 that the police had intimidated him into changing his testimony about Chuong’s whereabouts during the night Officer Sinh got attacked.

Another person, Trinh Xuan Truong, petitioned to the People’s Supreme Procuracy Office on September 10, 2013 and claimed that the police had beaten him up, burnt him with cigarettes, threatened to arrest him, and ordered him to change his testimony, from being with Chuong in a different city during the night of the attack to did not see Chuong that night.

By January 27, 2008, the Hai Phong City Police Department finalized their investigation and concluded in their criminal complaint that Chuong, along with two co-conspirators, Trung and Hoang, had confessed to using a knife to rob officer Sinh for money to buy heroin, resulting in his death from knife injuries the morning after.

On June 12, 2008, Chuong and co-defendants were tried for murder and he was given the death penalty while the other two received life sentence and 20-year imprisonment respectively. It is worth to notice that Trung, the defendant who received the 20-year imprisonment, was the grandson of a woman who received an outstanding medal from the regime in the past, thus the law allows him a lighter sentence.

Nguyen Trong Doan, Chuong’s younger brother was also sentenced to two years imprisonment for “concealing criminals” because he was trying to bring forward Chuong’s alibi witnesses.

Like Ho Duy Hai and Le Van Manh, Chuong has been incarcerated since his arrest, and his execution could happen anytime. And also like the other two families, Chuong’s parents, especially his father, became his strongest and most outspoken advocates on Facebook. During a teleconference with us in early 2016, Chuong’s dad, Nguyen Truong Chinh, disclosed that he had left their home to come to Hanoi to petition for a review of Chuong’s case. With all of their valuables sold to pay for Chuong’s legal case and appeals, his father had lived among land-grabs victims’ community and worked as a motorbiker for hire to earn a meager salary.

Yet, the future looks bleak when courts refused to grant review, and legal options are running out for Ho Duy Hai, Le Van Manh, Nguyen Van Chuong, as well as other death-row mates, unless major reforms regarding criminal procedures take place in Vietnam. Until then and there, their lives could only depend on other people’s mercy and how much and how often the international community exerted pressure on the Vietnamese government.

Death Penalty

Wrongfully Convicted Ho Duy Hai Languishes on Death Row

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Ms. Nguyen Thi Loan, death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai's mother petitioned again for his innocence in December 2017. Photo credits: Unknown social media source.

During these last days of 2017, be it rain or shine, people in Ha Noi, Vietnam, could often spot a frail, weary middle-aged woman holding up a sign “Do Not Kill My Innocent Son, Ho Duy Hai” near the government’s headquarters.

She is death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai’s mother, Nguyen Thi Loan.

Since Hai’s conviction in 2008, Ms. Loan has begun her own crusade to petition for his release. In the past few years, she especially traveled more often to Ha Noi where the central government is located to raise awareness of Hai’s case because time might be running out for him.

Ho Duy Hai’s execution was halted once in December 2014 due to public outcry, but recently, local authorities had expressed their impatience for having to continue keeping him on death row.

On December 7, 2017, at a meeting of the People’s Committee of Long An Province, Dinh Van Sang – Prosecutorial General of the People’s Procuracy of Long An Province had suggested that the execution of Ho Duy Hai should be carried out as soon as possible because “the imprisonment of this kind (of prisoners) would be too burdensome (for the government).”

Ho Duy Hai and his sister in a family picture. Photo credits: Kienthuc.net.

It often goes without exception in the majority of jurisdiction, that one shall not be convicted based solely on his or her confessions.

The criminal law principle of corpus delicti requires a higher burden of evidence from the prosecution and provides that a defendant’s confession – on its own – is not enough for a conviction.

Having credible physical evidence from the prosecution then becomes the determining factor in convincing a jury or a judge, that the government has satisfied the burden of proof and that they have proved the defendant was, in fact, guilty of the crime charged.

Vietnam follows this general rule in prosecuting criminal cases.

Yet, such a rule only exists in law books and legal codes.

In practice, people not only got convicted solely on their confessions but very often, they confessed because they were beaten and tortured by the investigating officers.

Ho Duy Hai was one of them.

In March 2008, Hai – a then 23-year-old recent graduate from Long An Province located in the Mekong Delta south of Sai Gon – was arrested, charged and convicted of double homicide and sentenced to death.

The only evidence used to convict him was practically his confession, which he later recanted and revealed that he was forced to confess by the police during his detention.

The prosecution not only did not offer any credible physical evidence, they even committed basic prosecutorial mistakes.

The time of death was never established for the two victims, making it impossible for the defendant to come up with an alibi.

The murder weapons were “lost” by the forensic team and other items were later “purchased” a local market by witnesses who vouched for their similarities if compared to the real ones.

None of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched Ho Duy Hai’s.

A special team of legal experts set up by the Vietnamese National Assembly and led by the current Commissioner of the National Assembly’s Judiciary Committee – Le Thi Nga – visited Hai in the end of December 2014 after his family successfully used social media campaign to halt his execution (which was set to be carried out earlier that month).

The report signed by Ms. Le Thi Nga in February 2015, found that Hai’s case was riddled with irregularities and prosecutorial mistakes and that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to support a conviction. It also called for a trial of cassation for Hai.

2018 will be three years since the government’s legal experts concluded that Hai’s case deserved a review and ten years since Hai’s life as a free man ceased to exist, yet it seems as if the legal obstacles have stacked even higher against him.

Hai remains in prison, his youthful years waste away with each day spent on death row.

With the assistance of a local artist, Thinh Nguyen, Ms. Loan and other parents of wrongfully convicted death-row inmates appeared in several video clips to raise public awareness on the reality of forced confessions and prosecutorial irregularities in Vietnam’s criminal cases.

And even though the videos are well-received, it seems as if these efforts are to no avail, at least for the time being.

His mother has also written thousands of petitions pleading the government to not kill her innocent son, and she would talk to anyone – be it the personnel from foreign embassies or just about any passerby on the streets – whoever would spare a few minutes listening to her telling the story of Hai’s wrongful conviction.

Her hope is that one day, not only the people will stop and listen to her, but so will government officials and that they will take up Hai’s case and declare him a free man.

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Human Rights

Vietnam: Increasing Cyber Attacks on Activists Portray A Shrinking Internet Freedom

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A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

During the last week of November and in early December 2017, many of the independent media websites in Vietnam reported that access to their sites had been blocked. This includes The Vietnamese. Readers confirmed they could not access the attacked sites unless they installed VPN to get over the firewalls

Another independent news project also runs by The Vietnamese’s editorial board, Luat Khoa online legal magazine, was also blocked in Vietnam starting around December 4, 2017. Luat Khoa has been in operation for the past three years with over 90k likes on Facebook and an average of 500,000 pageviews per month. This is the first time Luat Khoa gets blocked in the country.

In a more severe case, on December 5, 2017, Dan Luan – another well-known independent site – shared on Facebook that their website was under DDoS attack for about a week in late November. A DDos attack is defined as “an attempt to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources”.

Earlier last month, there were also failed attempts trying to inject Dan Luan’s website with malicious scripts via Cross-Site Scripting (XSS). Dan Luan frequently suffered cyber attacks, which they believed were the works of government-controlled hackers.

Also in November 2017, a handful of popular Facebookers lost access to their accounts because they were reported by anonymous users to Facebook for violations of community standards. Among them was blogger Nguoi Buon Gio, who now lives in exile in Germany.

It seems quite likely that the Vietnamese government would rely on cyber attacks as an important tactic for oppression in recent years when the numbers of Internet and social media users increased dramatically in the country.

In July 2017, We Are Social, a social media marketing and advertising reported Vietnam had surpassed Thailand to become the 7th country with the most Facebook users worldwide.

The government has not exactly been shy in expressing the desire to tighten their grip on controlling the virtual world. As previously reported, Vietnam claimed to have worked with Facebook and Google to remove thousands of videos and accounts that allegedly contained anti-state materials.

Earlier this year, in May 2017, Gen. Nguyen Danh Cong of the Ministry of Public Security stated during an intra-departmental meeting, that the MPS had successfully blocked thousands of websites which they deemed to be anti-state and reactionary contents.

Four years before that, on May 5, 2010, Gen. Vu Hai Trieu, the then Deputy Director of the MPS, announced: “Our technical departments have destroyed 300 Internet web pages and blogs posting unsuitable contents.”

Coincidentally, it was in early November 2017 that the Washington D.C.-based cybersecurity firm, Volexity, issued a report, confirming it has been – since May 2017 – monitoring an active operation of mass surveillance and cyber attacks operating out of Vietnam.

This operation includes the maintenance of an active group of hackers whose mission is to target Vietnamese activists and dissidents, as well as foreign citizens, corporations, and governments with interests in Vietnam.

It was not the first time that the international cybersecurity community had warned about hackers who seemed to have had a close tie with the Vietnamese government. In the past three years, besides Volexity, at least two other organizations, Electronic Frontier Foundation and FireEye, had issued similar reports.

Vietnam’s government is believed to have been maintaining a cyber espionage group calls OceanLotus since at least 2014. OceanLotus (or SeaLotus) is also known as APT-C-00 or APT32 according to these organizations.

There was also other information leading people to believe that OceanLotus was related to the hacker group Sinh Tu Lenh.

Sinh Tu Lenh became famous among Vietnamese cyber community about a decade ago when it was named as the party responsible for the numerous cyber attacks, aiming at dissidents, activists, and independent news sites, including Dan Luan, Talawas, Xcafevn, Anh Ba Sam, and Mother Mushroom.

Also recently, on November 14, 2017, Freedom House issued its Freedom on the Net report and named 30 countries where the government paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda. Vietnam was one of them.

According to Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House: “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The report also quoted Sanjia Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project: “Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda.”

“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”

But activists in Vietnam are not new to this form of government’s suppression. Back in 2014, our editorial board’s member, Pham Doan Trang, had met with Google and Facebook representatives in the U.S. where she forwarned them about the daily attacks these “paid opinion shapers” had fired at activists and bloggers in Vietnam and how such conducts affected democracy movement.

During the summer of 2014 alone, over 40 accounts of activists were reported, and in turn, got shut down by Facebook.

Calling themselves the government’s “cyber army forces”, these online bots repeatedly reported activists and bloggers’ Facebook accounts, effectively causing their shut-downs.

Taking advantages of Facebook’s loosely defined rules and standards of conducts for the users’ community, the troop of “opinion shapers” would abuse the Facebook’s “Report Abuse Button” with thousands of reports a day on a specifically targeted activist’s account.

Yet, to date, it seems that the activists and the democracy movement have proven their potential sustainability in Vietnam, because people are still actively promoting their causes and Facebook continues to be the main platform for advancing social changes, despite all odds.

Back in March 2015, facing the city government’s immediate decision to cut down some 6,700 trees in Hanoi, activists created a Facebook group and organized people for peaceful protests. They were able to mobilize residents of Hanoi and successfully stopped the city government from going forward with the plan.

In 2016, Facebook again proved its effectiveness, as it was one of the best platforms for informing the public about the Formosa environmental disaster in Central Vietnam. During the height of the weeks-long protests against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Plant – the company responsible for causing the pollution – access to Facebook was blocked on a few weekends. But its popularity among the general public had caused the government to undo such decision almost immediately.

This year, in the recent months, drivers who were passing through a BOT toll in Cai Lay Ward, Tien Giang Province have been protesting the improper location of said toll. Their acts of civil disobedience – through various forms of slowing down the process of paying toll fees and causing the toll to close down – were followed closely by the public on Facebook and other social media platforms.

To protect themselves and fight back, Vietnamese activists have received technical assistance from organizations, such as Access Now, when they got reported by the government’s bots on Facebook or got struck by some other forms of cyber attacks.

In the meanwhile, the Draft Law on Cybersecurity – which mirrored that of China – is now waiting for the National Assembly’s approval.

And as such, the battle in the cyber world continues.

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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.

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