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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.

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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Sick And Injured Inmates In Vietnam Face Inadequate Medical Treatment, Torture

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Shackled inmates. Photo credits: The Marshall Project

An inmate who was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage in January 2019 told his family that he did not get proper treatment and was sent back to prison after about a month in the hospital.

34-year-old Ha Van Truong is currently serving a nine-year-sentence for manslaughter in the case resulting from a land dispute between farmer Dang Van Hien and Long Son Commercial and Investment Company (Long Son), a private company in Dak Nong Province in October 2016.

On March 31, 2019, Truong was, again, admitted to the hospital with the same diagnosis. But his family informed us last night that his conditions have gotten worse. They also stated that during both of his stay in the hospital, he was subjected to shackling – a practice which international human rights law defines as torture.

Last year, the trial of Dang Van Hien and Ha Van Truong received extensive news coverage due to an unusually heightened public sympathy for the defendants, who were perceived as victims of land-grabbing. In Vietnam, land-grabbing has become an increasingly urgent social and political issue that the whole nation often paid close attention to.

After Dang Van Hien was sentenced to death for homicide, more than 3,000 people signed an online petition, asking the president of Vietnam to commute his sentence. Earlier this year, in February 2019, Hien’s case was proceeding towards a trial for cassation – a review of both the law and facts that could give him a second chance at life.

Truong was initially sentenced to 12-year-imprisonment, but an appellate court in Ho Chi Minh City reduced the term to 9 years which again showed the impact of public support on the case.

However, Truong has been a victim of police brutality and torture, and he also did not receive adequate medical care. His family told us that Truong suspected his brain hemorrhage was a result of the injuries he received from police beating during his pre-trial detention. Since then, he has been suffering from a chronic headache, but the prison’s medical clinic only gave him pain reliever medication. He did not receive a proper diagnosis until he fainted and was admitted to the hospital in January 2019.

During his first admission, the authorities waited for two days before informing his family without any specific reasons. Truong was left alone in the hospital with no one to care for him. He was unable to eat solid food, but the police fed him with only rice and pork. The families of other patients had to give him some milk to drink until his family found out about his whereabouts and visited him.

Truong’s current prognosis is not looking too positive. His family said that his body has been frail so he would need assistance to move around and that he often passed out.

In such dire conditions, Truong is still subjected to shackle 24/7 even when he is lying on the hospital bed. Initially, the police chained both Truong’s hands and feet, but now, they only applied such treatment to his feet. The use of shackle on inmates is a violation of the UN’s Nelson Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners.

Truong’s situation is not the exception but rather a depiction of the overall picture of prison conditions in Vietnam.

Families of prisoners of conscience and political dissidents, over the years, repeatedly made allegations about the substandard conditions of Vietnamese prison centers and the mistreatment of prisoners, especially those who needed medical care.

In 2014, prisoner of conscience Dinh Dang Dinh, a teacher, passed away shortly after his release from prison. Dinh maintained his innocence until the day he died. He was collecting signatures of residents in his hometown to protest the government’s plan to mine bauxite in the Highlands of Central Vietnam. Dinh was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 6-year-imprisonment in 2013 for propagandizing against the state. When his health deteriorated, he received a pardon and an immediate release, but it was too late.

His family alleged that the lack of proper medical care and the continued refusal to hospitalize Dinh during his incarceration contributed to his untimely passing.

In March 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed its concerns about the country’s prison conditions, finding that there were: “consistent reports of poor conditions of detention, including overcrowding, use of prolonged solitary confinement, shackling, abuses by other prisoners at the instigation of prison officials, and non-separation of healthy prisoners from those with contagious diseases, intentional exposure of prisoners to HIV infection, denial of medical care; and punitive transfer of prisoners”.

Ha Van Truong remains in critical conditions today, but he has been transferred to Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City – one of the top medical facilities in the country. His family continues to hope and pray for a speedy recovery. But at the same time, they also ask: why didn’t he receive adequate medical treatment during his first hospital admission two months ago?

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