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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.

Human Rights

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc: A Decade Behind Bars

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Nine years ago, on January 20, 2010, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City convicted Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Cong Dinh, Le Thang Long and Nguyen Tien Trung under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code for “subversion against the people’s government.”

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was sentenced to 16 years in prison and five years probation which technically meant five more years under house arrest.

Thuc was arrested in May 2009, and for almost a decade, the unique case of a successful entrepreneur turned dissident continued to be the highest profile among the hundreds of political prisoners and dissidents in the country.

Article 79 has faced harsh criticisms from the international community.

During Vietnam’s 2nd UPR cycle in 2014, the Vietnamese government accepted the recommendations to amend this and other arbitrary penal codes under the “national security” section, to ensure they would not be used to infringe the people’s human rights.

However, in reality, the amended Penal Code of 2015 did not change the situation in any way. The crime “subversion against the state” remains as Article 109 under the new code.

Thuc’s indictment described his criminal conducts included the act of forming and persuading people to join the Chan research group, to write and publish online articles defaming the government, creating division among the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The prosecution further alleged that he had attempted to reach out and establish a relationship with leaders of the VCP, with the intent of re-shaping their political opinion to change the regime, and that he had planned to manufacture a document named “The Vietnam Path” to subvert against the State.

The Vietnamese government’s point of view on “subversion against the State” is often not shared by the international community, especially democratic nations in the West.

The heart of the problem lies in Section 1, Article 4 of Vietnam 2013 Constitution which states:

The Communist Party of Vietnam – the Vanguard of the Vietnamese working class, simultaneously the vanguard of labourers and of the Vietnamese nation, the faithful representative of the interests of the working class, labourers and the whole nation, acting upon the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and Ho Chi Minh’s thought, is the leading force of the State and society.

Because of this political monopoly, the VCP and the State of Vietnam became interchangeable in the mind of Hanoi’s regime.

The leaders of the VCP would not hesitate in sentencing people who hold a different political philosophy than theirs to prison for decades because questioning the ultimate leadership of the Party equates “overthrowing the government.”

This viewpoint effectively puts the VCP at odds with the universal values of human rights, in particular, the right to freedom of expression where holding a different political opinion, calling for pluralism and a multi-party system cannot be deemed criminal.

In Tran Huynh Duy Thuc’s case, the defendants were also found guilty because the government further alleged that they were members of the Democratic Party and had started to write a new constitution.

As one may correctly guess, organizing a political party in Vietnam – as in Thuc’s case – could also be construed as an act to “subvert the government.”

Vietnam, at press time, has only one political party.

Thuc has received the offer to be released into exile on numerous occasions, but he turned them down, stating that he would finish his full prison term instead of having to leave his home country indefinitely.

The offer to be released into exile to political prisoners in Vietnam is not a release.

It is more like a suspension of the sentence for either medical or humanitarian reasons. The released prisoners would not be able to come back to Vietnam, effectively being banned from their own country.

When the Penal Code was amended, Thuc’s attorney has argued that the government should release him according to Section 3 of Article 109. Because at most, the evidence provided by the prosecution could only show that the defendants were in “preparation” to commit a crime under Section 3, with the maximum sentence of five years.

His petition to review the case has gone unanswered.

On December 13, 2018, Julie Ward, a Member of the European Parliament representing the North West of England, sent a letter to the President of Vietnam – Nguyen Phu Trong – (who is also the leader of the VCP), calling for an unconditional, in-country release of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc. The letter addressed the concerns over allegations from his family that he had suffered abuse in prison.

A group of the EU Parliament’s MEPs, including Ms. Ward, has stated in more than one occasion that the release of prisoners of conscience like Tran Huynh Duy Thuc would be a critical condition for them to support the EU-Vietnam FTA.

On this 9th anniversary of his conviction, U.S. House Representative Zoe Lofgren also called for Tran Huynh Duy Thuc’s release and denounced the mistreatment of political prisoners by Vietnamese authorities.

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Land's Right

Timeline Of The Loc Hung Garden Incident

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Loc Hung Garden After the Forced Removal on January 8, 2019. Photo Courtesy: Facebook Nguyen Tri Dung.

The forced eviction at Loc Hung vegetable garden in Saigon on January 4 and 8, 2019 joined the long list of land disputes between the people and the State of Vietnam. We are putting together a timeline of events that have happened to date and will continue to update as this story develops.

December 20, 2018

News about a possible forced eviction came about on December 20, 2018, on social media. Blogger and human rights activist, Pham Doan Trang, reported on her Facebook that according to the residents at Loc Hung, 50 local police officers from different forces in Ward 6 of District Tan Binh showed up at the garden area, demanding the residents to allow them to perform an administrative check. By 1:30 p.m., the police withdrew.

December 29, 2018

The People’s Committee of Ward 6 issued an announcement, stating that they would begin a forced removal of all illegal constructions that were built after January 1, 2018, which also notified the residents that the time for such removal would take place within 90 days from January 2, 2019. It is unclear if all residents received the announcement.

January 3, 2019

During the night of January 1, 2019, the residents announced on social media that the local authorities have brought in barbed wires, frequency disrupting machine, forklifts, and bulldozers to the garden’s area.

January 4, 2019

At daybreak, a group of some 400 people from different police and security forces showed up at Loc Hung and began to block street access to the garden, starting from the Bay Hien intersection to Thanh Thai and To Hien Thanh streets. The removal of some 40 houses lasted from 7:30 A.M. until 6:00 P.M., during which time 20 people were arrested and taken to the Ward 6’s police station for opposing it.

The residents insisted that they had never received any order for such removal.

January 7, 2019

During the night, hundreds of police officers and civil security personnel were ordered to go to Loc Hung where the public speakers – on high volume – were announcing the government would only remove illegally built constructions. Cao Ha Chanh, one of the persons serving on the board of representatives for the families living at Loc Hung, recalled that the removing force still did not provide the people with any legal documents regarding the order to remove before they started to take down the homes.

January 8, 2019

Starting at 5:30 a.m., approximately 1.000 officers from different police forces and others entered Loc Hung garden. Similar to what happened on January 4, 2019, the authorities blocked off the streets leading to the area by putting up the barbed wires. To gain entry, people must show the police their identification. As soon as they arrived, they began arresting those residents identified as “leaders” in the community, including Cao Ha Truc.

Electricity and internet were cut off in the area. By 7:30 A.M., the forklifts and excavators were put to work as the authorities began to tear down the residents’ homes. By the end of the day, all of the houses at Loc Hung garden were demolished. The residents estimated there were about 200 homes.

Among the now homeless people were some 20 disabled veterans who served in the former South of Vietnam’s military who do not have a family and they were being taken care of by the residents and the priests from the Redemptorists Church.

On the same day, Amnesty International – Southeast Asia office – publicly denounced the Vietnamese government’s decision to remove the houses forcefully belong to Loc Hung’s residents.

January 9, 2019

In the early hours of the day, the police released Cao Ha Truc and other residents who got arrested the day before.

The Ho Chi Minh City Police Department’s newspaper was among the first state-owned media reported on the removal of Loc Hung Garden’s houses, which the government estimated to be around 120 in total. Accordingly, the People’s Committee of Ward 6 stated that the removal of the illegal constructions was carried out under proper legal procedures.

January 10, 2019

Tuoi Tre and a few others also reported the story, mostly to allow the District Tan Binh’s authorities to make their argument public, that they have only “enforced the removal of illegal constructions on a public area and not a forced eviction in a land recovery matter.”

Further, the People’s Committee of Tan Binh District confirmed with the media that they had followed the proper legal procedures when organizing the enforcement team to take down a total of 112 construction projects without a permit at Loc Hung between January 4-9, 2019.

January 11, 2019

Chris Hayes, a Labor Party’s member of the Australian Parliament, and a Vietnamese-Australian bishop, Vincent Nguyen Van Long, both called on the Vietnamese government to cease from enforcing the removal of Loc Hung resident’s houses, stating that it is a violation of the people’s freedom of religion and belief.

On the same day, the Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Ho Chi Minh City division, Nguyen Thien Nhan spoke about Loc Hung for the first time.

VnExpress quoted him saying: “there are many things which should be normal, but those who are plotting against the government would still abuse them to incite (others). As seen in a few cases in 2018, the city had learned from our experience so that we would not confront the people, but we will use propaganda activities to let them understand.”

January 12, 2019

The local authorities put up a large panel in the area, announcing a public construction was going to be developed after the removal team had flattened out the entire Loc Hung vegetable garden. On the same day, some of the residents met with a group of lawyers who have expressed interest in providing legal assistance.

January 13, 2019

The Committee for assistance in the development project regarding the public school at Ward 6, District Tan Binh, HCM City (the project to be developed at Loc Hung) announced the assistance policy that the District was going to be provided for those who were farming on the land. Accordingly, on January 10, 2019, the People’s Committee of HCM City approved the assistance proposal for those who have been using the land at Loc Hung garden for agriculture purpose at the rate of 7,055,000 VND/m2.

Attorney Trinh Vinh Phuc published a few photographs of the documents provided by the residents of Loc Hung in support of their claim for legal possession of the land.

January 14, 2019

At 9:00 A.M. a group of religious leaders of the Interfaith Council together with some of the priests from the Redemptorists Church in Saigon went to visit the residents of Loc Hung. In the afternoon, Bishop Paolo Nguyen Thai Hop also came to visit at around 3:00 P.M. During both the morning and afternoon visits of these religious leaders, the local government used loud public speakers to interfere with their prayers and speeches to the residents.

Summary of Factual Disputes Regarding Loc Hung:

The disputed land consists of 4.8 hectares in Ward 6, District Tan Binh, which includes parcels 126-5, 128-5, 129-5, and 131-101-5 according to the No. 12 Map (of the old recordings). The location of the land is as follows: the North West touches Alley 9/24 Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, the South West touches Hung Hoa Street, The South East touches Chan Hung Street, and the North East touches the current existing residence.

The People’s Committee of Tan Binh District claims this land is public because, before April 30, 1975, it was under the management and control of the former Republic of South Vietnam’s Department of Telecommunication and was used as a telecommunication tower. After April 30, 1975, the new government took control of the land according to Decision 111/CP dated April 14, 1977, issued by the Government Council, and continued to use the telecommunication tower.

On the contrary, Loc Hung’s residents claim that the original owner before April 30, 1975, was the Catholics Church of Vietnam who had granted them the right to farm on such land. After April 30, 1975, the residents continued to live and farm on the land undisrupted and without dispute with other people. After the Law on Land 1993 took effect in Vietnam, the residents have been petitioning the government in almost 20 years for the right to possess and usage of the land. However, the government did not respond to their petitions.

(To Be Continued)

References:

Loc Hung Vegetable Garden Continues To Be Harrassed (RFA-Vietnamese)

Loc Hung Vegetable Garden “Devasted after Forced Removal” (BBC-Vietnamese)

Loc Hung Vegetable Garden Under Siege (BBC-Vietnamese)

Forced Removal of 110 Households Was Done According to Law (HCM City Police Department Newspaper)

Forced Removal of 112 Illegally Constructed Houses in The Vegetable Garden (Tuoi Tre)

Tan Binh District Speaks About the Forced Removal at ‘Loc Hung Vegetable Garden’(Vietnamnet)

Australian MP and Vietnamese-Australian Bishop Speaks Up About Loc Hung Incident (RFA-Vietnamese)

HCM City Forced Removal of 112 Houses Built on Public Land (VNExpress)

Tan Binh District Provides More than 7M VND/m2 in Assistance for Loc Hung Vegetable Garden (Tuoi Tre)

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Human Rights

Vietnam Rings In 2019 with More Restrictions on Citizens’ Freedoms

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During the last week of December 2018, Vietnam’s state-owned newspapers flooded the country’s social media with articles on rules and tips for writing and blogging in a new era of internet usage, all in preparation for the 2018 Cybersecurity Law taking effect on New Year’s Day.

In the days leading to the country’s cyber D-day, on December 30, 2018, with the headlines “How to Write to Express your Political Opinion on the Internet without Violating the Law?” Tuoi Tre online newspaper essentially summarized the ultimate paradox for people living under one of the most repressive countries around the world.

While the article elicits opinions from a wide range of interviewees, from intellects and heads of certain IT firms to regular social media users, they all repeat the same government’s mantra: practice self-censorship and avoid criticism of the Party and the state, so that you can have the right to express yourself.

Like the headlines itself, the “opinion” of the group of people interviewed in this article seems to be blissfully ignorant of the international standards for freedom of expression, in particular, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, where a government not only cannot criminalize people for stating their political opinions but is also not allowed to censor them.

It is not surprising that the article of Tuoi Tre did not consider critical opinions of the government to be worthy of political opinions and instead endorsed the same old government’s propaganda which had been recycled throughout the past seven decades, that one could have an opinion about anything in Vietnam, except those that criticize the Party and the government. After all, all newspapers in the country are considered to be the arms and legs of that propaganda machine.

Another leading newspaper in Vietnam, Thanh Nien, also published an article on December 29, 2018, warning people to steer clear of “The 14 Ways to Violate the New Cybersecurity Law” with the first paragraph declaring the use of social media “to gather and call on other people to incite disorder” among the prohibited acts. The language of this paragraph is nothing new; it is the same as Decree 38 which has been used for regulating public gatherings in Vietnam, an ordinance that legal experts in the country have repeatedly questioned its constitutionality since its issuance in 2005.

Praising the accomplishments of the Party and the state, as well as reciting their propaganda, are not only welcome but also considered to be parts of the Vietnamese journalists’ obligations according to the “Code of Conduct” published by the Vietnamese Journalists Association (VJA).

The VJA, however, is an organization formed by the government according to its Media and Press Law of 2016 (link in Vietnamese), and these obligations are statutory. The Vietnamese authorities may think that by legislating journalists’ conducts, it would give them the appearance of a society that respects the rule of law. However, in reality, perhaps the only thing such laws could further demonstrate would probably be the systematic abuse of press freedom in the country.

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese government is now ready to roll out the “code of model behaviors” for people who use social media in the new year, and the VJA has taken an extra step this past week with the announcement of its “Eight Rules for Journalists to Behave on Social Media” on December 25, 2018.

Among others, most notably is the requirement that journalists are not to “post any news, articles, pictures, or audio recordings on social media or repost speech and opinions in opposition to the way, policy, and guideline of the Party or the State.”

Not stopping at that, the new rules for journalists according to the VJA also require that while online, they are not going to “comment, give an opinion or share any information which contains the purpose of inciting or engaging others to react negatively, as well as those issues that are political, economic, cultural, societal, relating to defense security, and external affairs,…with complexity and sensitivity which need consensus as well as positive and constructive observation and behaviors for society”.

Effectively, the new arbitrarily worded regulations for journalists, when being applied together with the new cybersecurity bill, could mean that the sharing of any information considered to be critical of a proposed law, such as the still pending draft bill on the Special Economic Zones which ignited the nationwide protests in June 2018 for example, may be deemed illegal and criminal by the government starting in 2019.

At the same time, state-owned media in Vietnam also welcomed the news of the CP-TPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) taking effect at the end of December 2018. In the new year, Vietnam continues to push for the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement to be ratified by the EU Parliament in March 2019. Both of these trade agreements demand serious improvement on the human rights situation in Vietnam, directly and indirectly.

However, in 2018, The 88 Project reported:

– Vietnam arrested 103 people (up from 43 in 2017)
– 120 activists were tried
– At least 22 of those who tried were females
– 35 had known religious affiliations
– 11 were sentenced to between 10 and 14 years
– Two received the sentence of between 15 and 19 years
– One person, Le Dinh Luong, was sentenced to 20 years

In total, 210 people are serving jail sentences for their peaceful activism in Vietnam with 19 more await trial.

Whether the Vietnamese government will yield to international pressure and improve its human rights records, or follows through and starts enforcing the new suppressive law on bloggers and journalists in 2019, the message from the activists’ community is unanimous: they will continue to write and express their opinions regardless. Before the Cybersecurity Law of 2018, Vietnam already has enough penal codes to send their political dissidents to prison for a long time.

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