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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.

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: 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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Human Rights

Vietnam: Free Press is Not Free

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A Vietnamese newsstand. Photo credits: RFA.

Vietnam always boasts an impressive record of having over 800 newspapers, thousands of publications, tens of thousands of journalists, a national news agency, hundreds of TV channels and broadcasting channels, as well as hundreds of online newspapers and magazines, as evidence that there is a free press in the country.

Yet at the same time, it remains one of the top countries that practice the tightest Internet surveillance and censorship as evaluated by Freedom House in 2017 and has also been named one of the top five state enemies of the Internet around the world by Reporter Sans Frontiers.

Obviously, the government and its supporters have frequently complained that the international human rights associations were biased with their reports and not treating Vietnam fairly.

So, is Vietnam’s free press free, as claimed by its government?

One of the latest administrative decisions from the country’s Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) on November 14, 2017, could shed some light on the answer.

The MIC-issued order effectively prohibited the online magazine Nguoi Quan Ly (The Manager), from engaging in any and all publication activities for three months, due to an article it had published in relation to the anti-corruption campaign in Binh Phuoc Province dated August 21, 2017. Further, the magazine was also fined 40 million VND (approximately 1,800.00 USD) for this piece and had to immediately and permanently remove such article.

The offending article is entitled “Binh Phuoc: Newspapers are standing on the sidelines of the campaign to prevent and fight against corruption?”

Given the fact that Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has long been tooting his image as a leader with a staunch stand on fighting corruption, it could be a bit confusing for some in trying to understand as to why Nguoi Quan Ly received quite a harsh fine for that particular article.

But it is also this very call to fight corruption from the VCP that apparently had caused Nguoi Quan Ly such an agonizing fate.

Corruption is one of the more sensitive issues to the Vietnamese government because it could carry the most detrimental effect on the VCP’s legitimacy. And in Vietnam, it is the VCP’s leadership that counts, not the civic government. Thus, the VCP has to defend its own legitimacy at any costs, and writings on the topic of corruption must be strictly monitored. In other words, the press should write about corruption as being directed by the VCP’s orders.

Understanding the Party’s ultimate goal of keeping an impeccable image in the eyes and minds of its people, would further help us understand why the press in Vietnam cannot be free, as long as the VCP retains its leadership role.

With plenty of traditional newspapers, as well as online magazines and news sites in Vietnam, none of them could really be free to write as they please. Instead, all of them are only allowed to write as instructed by the directives and missives they receive from the VCP’s Central Propaganda Department, not just on sensitive issues like corruption but apparently all issues.

It has been an old joke in the country that Vietnam has many newspapers, but only one editor-in-chief, the Chief of the VCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

Nguoi Quan Ly online magazine was shut down for three months and had to pay a hefty fine because the published article could probably be construed as a direct attack on the Central Propaganda Department’s authorities.

In the offending article, the magazine criticized the Binh Phuoc’s Provincial Office of the Central Propaganda Department for hindering the media and journalists’ efforts in covering stories about corruption in the area, in particular, by the issuance of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU.

According to Nguoi Quan Ly’s article, Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU effectively ordered all media in the area to write only about “positive” results of the VCP’s fight against corruption. In other words, they were supposed to report only on how great the government had been in carrying out those anti-graft campaigns.

The article further stated, if one was to follow Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU, then it would mean he/she would not be able to raise any potential issues regarding the probable government’s wrongdoings, any incidents of corruption in the area, or present their investigation on the potentially corrupted officials. Instead, they could only praise the government and its officials on a great job that they had done with the anti-graft campaign. Therefore, the article continued to argue, the missive was in direct conflict with the VCP’s own anti-corruption mission as detailed by the Politburo.

The article did not state any other information, except quoting and analyzing the contents of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU. But that was enough for the MIC to penalize it with a high fine and shut it down for three months.

Speaking to BBC-Vietnamese edition, journalist Mai Quoc An said he could not understand why Nguoi Quan Ly was penalized so harshly for this particular article, as they were just reporting the correct contents of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU. On his Facebook account, An also published a photograph of the very missive, so that netizens could see its contents themselves and compared to what Nguoi Quan Ly had written.

From An’s Facebook account, we also learned that the entire editorial board, writers, and staff of Nguoi Quan Ly had resigned from their positions on November 16, 2017, two days after the administrative sanction became public. That, however, is a rare form of defiance from Vietnam’s mainstream media in situations like this.

What more often seen is that when faced with an administrative order penalizing them for exercising their rights under freedom of the press, none of the newspapers or their writers would fight back. They all rather accepted the sanctions, paid the fines, and lived with the reality that their publication may very well be closed indefinitely after the sanctioning period due to the competitive nature of the field.

An also told BBC that he believed no one had ever challenged the validity of these administrative decisions in court. An is no stranger to this method of controlling the press in Vietnam. He used to work for Sai Gon Tiep Thi, a popular magazine that was forced to close its operation in early 2014 after 19 years of publication. Many suspected that Sai Gon Tiep Thi was closed down because it was deemed to have gotten too close to the VCP’s comfort in writing more and more about issues, which the Party considered to be, highly sensitive political matters.

While the decision to fine Nguoi Quan Ly obviously did not spell out the exact reasons and instead stated that the offending article “contained misleading information which led to serious consequences”, once we compared the contents of the offending article to that of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU, the MIC seemed to have failed at their reasoning.

If anything, this latest round of investigating and monetary fining publications (along with Nguoi Quan Ly, at least two other newspapers were fined for their articles) by the MIC indirectly reaffirmed the fact that free press in Vietnam after all, does not stand a chance to be free. One is only free to write as long as he or she keeps in line with the orders and missives of the Central Propaganda Department and the VCP.

It is the so-called centralized democracy which operates the VCP, that also dictates an absolute obedience to the Party in many aspects of society, especially those that related to the news and media. And as such, newspapers like Nguoi Quan Ly was penalized not because their articles contain untruths or misleading information, but because they showed the slightest sight of disobeying the orders of the VCP and its Central Propaganda Department.

Vietnamese journalists and reporters, after all, does have a duty to “protect the platforms, ideology, and policies of the Party,” according to the country’s Press Law 2016, which took effect on January 1, 2017.

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