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From Nguyễn Văn Đài’s April 5, 2018 Trial – What Constitutes “Overthrowing the People’s Government” in Vietnam?

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April 5, 2018 | Nguyễn Văn Đài – probably one of the most prominent dissidents in Vietnam for almost two decades – received one of the harshest sentences for political dissent in recent years.

A court in Hanoi, Vietnam sentenced Nguyễn Văn Đài to 15 years imprisonment and 5 years probation under house arrest. His colleagues tried and convicted in the same case, also received equally harsh sentences. Nguyễn Trung Tôn, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Trương Minh Đức, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, 11 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Lê Thu Hà, 9 years imprisonment and 2 years probation; Phạm Văn Trội, 7 years imprisonment and 1 year probation.

The 48-year old former attorney was among the first group of Vietnamese lawyers who took up political cases in the early 2000’s and defended dissidents, as well as those who were persecuted for exercising religious freedom.

Đài was the type of lawyer who would defend those accused of the very same crime he is facing today: “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s government.”

This crime is infamously known among international human rights groups and foreign embassies as the Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code 1999.

While carrying capital punishment as the maximum sentence, Article 79 however, utterly lacks a clear, well-defined description of conducts which would constitute a person’s criminal liability, and as such, making it impossible for people to cry out mea culpa.

The law only states that “a person conducting activities to form or participate in any organization to overthrow the people’s government shall be punished as follows,” and then immediately dwells into specifying the sentencing guidelines from twelve years, twenty years, life imprisonment, up to the death sentence for the main perpetrator, and five to fifteen years for those who act as accomplices.

Because of this ambiguity per se in its language, Article 79 had faced strong criticism from the international community over the years, especially during the last Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in January 2014.

Critics continue pointing out, that along with Articles 88 and 258 of the Penal Code, the government has used these criminal provisions almost exclusively against political dissidents and pro-democracy activists, taking advantage of the vague language of these codes to criminalize peaceful protests and suppress political dissent.

Facing such international pressure during the 2014 UPR, Vietnam agreed to amend Article 79, and they did, in 2015.

However, except for some minor, cosmetic changes such as the number of the code section from 79 to 109, and adding a category for those who are “preparing to commit the crime” with the punishment ranging from one to five years imprisonment, the remaining of the “new” Article 109 is taken verbatim from Article 79.

In short, we still have to look to actual cases to define which conducts would constitute the crime of “overthrowing the people’s government” in Vietnam, and in Đài’s case today, such conducts would be:

“Opening an office, having a website to operate, developing a ‘shortening manifesto’, having a structured organization, having internal and external affairs strategy, operating to increase membership, capacity, …; abusing the right to promote ‘democracy, human rights,’ ‘civil society’ to conceal the objectives of the Brotherhood for Democracy … waiting for the appropriate timing to openly operate in opposition of the government through changing the political structure in Vietnam, developing ‘pluralism with multiple parties’ and a government with ‘separation of powers’ to overthrow the people’s government while using a private sector economy as its basis.”

The above paragraph was an excerpt taken from the Conclusion section at page 10 of the 16-page long indictment issued on December 31, 2017 against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his five colleagues, Lê Thu Hà (who was arrested together with Đài on December 16, 2015), Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, Nguyễn Trung Tôn, Trương Minh Đức, and Phạm Văn Trội.

The new Penal Code of Vietnam was not taken effective until January 1, 2018. Thus, Đài and his colleagues were charged with Article 79 of the old code.

Nguyễn Văn Đài has never shied away from his political ambitions and his outspoken criticism of the current regime, especially regarding the political monopoly the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has over the country.

In 2006, Đài openly called for the establishment of other political parties and forming political opposition to challenge the VPC’s ruling. According to a research on Vietnam’s democratization advocates conducted by the Australian scholar, Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, Nguyễn Văn Đài would fall under the category of those who chose to confront the regime head-on.

He holds a firm personal belief that every Vietnamese people do have the intellectual capacity and enough knowledge to participate in a pluralistic form of governance with multiple parties.

He previously wrote that Vietnam had had other political parties in the past, during the 1930’s and the early independent days from 1945-1946. Notably, in the South of Vietnam – before the fall of Saigon – political parties were very active. Moreover, Đài always believes that the current Constitution supports the formation of other political parties besides the VPC.

His direct challenge to the ruling party’s power resulted in a conviction for “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 in 2007, where he served four years in prison and was released in 2011.

Coincidentally, 2011, the year in which Đài was released, also marked the beginning of an unprecedented rise of the young pro-democracy and pro-human rights movement in Vietnam.

Starting in the summer of 2011, Vietnamese people – especially youths – swarmed the streets of major cities such as Hanoi and Saigon, protesting against China’s aggression due to the incident involving the cutting of Vietnam’s Binh Minh vessel’s cable cab in the South China Sea.

People organized protests through Facebook’s pages, and statuses, calling for massive turnouts all over the country like never seen before, at least not anything like that had happened since after the Vietnam War was over in 1975.

At first, the government allowed the protests, but when faced with thousands of youths on the streets, they quickly decided to change course and started cracking down on peaceful protesters. Yet this very conduct of the government had opened doors to another era of civil disobedience in Vietnam: the birth of the independent civil society organizations (CSO) movement inside the country. Many of the protesters on those streets in Vietnam six years ago are now the prominent faces of the pro-democracy movement.

The undeterred Nguyễn Văn Đài quickly caught on to this phenomenon and organized his own CSO – the Brotherhood for Democracy (which got named in the indictment) – continuing pushing for political changes through challenging the one-party rule. A person with charisma, Đài again rose to the occasion, becoming the familiar face during those meetings with foreign officials and diplomats from many embassies in Hanoi.

And that was documented in his December 2017 indictment as well, where it detailed how he was able to connect with foreign institutions and individuals to secure funding for his CSO – activities that are normal for any non-governmental organization around the world. The indictment even named diplomats from the U.S. and Germany as people who acted as his references.

It also worths noting that almost two years ago, Vietnam’s National Assembly attempted to pass a law on association with restrictions on receiving “foreign funds.” However, such efforts failed when faced with stern opposition from NGOs and CSOs from Vietnam, both registered and non-registered.

Thus, except for the indictment in Đài’s case making it out to be a crime, Vietnam’s laws have yet to prohibit NGOs to receive foreign financial aids.

But the reality remains, that as of right now, Vietnam still only has one political party – the Communist Party – and Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues’ latest trial and conviction demonstrate that any efforts aiming at forming a political opposition would constitute conduct punishable by very long and harsh sentences.

In December 2008, many people gasped as China sentenced Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years for “suspicion of subversion against the state.”

Now almost ten years later, in April 2018, using an eerily similar charge against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues, Vietnam has demonstrated that it too, does not yield to international pressure and would even go the extra miles in sending political dissents to prisons for even longer terms than its communist big brother.

Fair Trials

Self Immolation in Vietnam: A Victim of Injustice’s Agonizing Act In Defiance

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Mr. Bùi Hữu Tuân at the scene. Photo credits: Facebook Trịnh Bá Phương

In the afternoon of July 2, 2018, a man committed self-immolation in the center of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, a few steps away from the Central Citizen Reception Committee’s office on Ngô Thì Nhậm Street.

He was later identified as 58-year-old Bùi Hữu Tuân, former village chief of Đạo Ngạn Village, Hợp Đồng Ward, Chương Mỹ District, Hanoi.

The victim is now in critical conditions with severe burns to the whole body.

Mr. Tuân was charged with Article 356 of Vietnam’s Penal Code for “abusing official position, power in the performance of official duties.”

He was supposed to begin his sentence of 3-year-imprisonment today, July 3, 2018. In the last act of defiance, one day before its commencement, he desperately protested the injustice of the trial and his conviction.

He was charged, tried, and convicted with not only insufficient evidence, but the evidence at trial showed that the prosecution did not even have any evidence for one element of the crime they had charged him with.

His son told VOA Vietnamese in an interview on July 2, 2018, that after Tuân failed to get the Central Citizen Reception Committee’s office agreed to halt his sentencing while reviewing his complaint to the Government Inspectorate, he went outside and committed the self-immolation.

Article 356 prescribes: “Any person who, for personal gain or other self-seeking purposes, abuses his/her power or position in performance of official duties to act against his/her official duties and as a result causes property damage of from VND 10,000,000 to under VND 200,000,000 or infringes upon state interests, lawful rights and interests of another organization or individual shall face a penalty of up to 03 years’ community sentence or 01 – 05 years’ imprisonment.”

From Pháp luật Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (The Law – Hochiminh City) newspaper, the most damning evidence against Tuân was that he – as the village chief – allegedly accepted money, along with the requests of some 23 families in the village, to ask the local government to give them lands to build their ancestors’ shrines and worship places. Yet, none of this money went to Tuân or any of his two co-defendants, as it was donated to the village.

The local procuracy’s office (the prosecution in Vietnam) and the court further alleged that he had overstepped his authorities in giving out land slots to the villagers, and thus had committed a crime under the above penal code.

According to them, he had abused his “official duties” even though some people questioned whether the village chief position could be considered an “office”.

At the trial court level, Tuân was convicted and sentenced to the maximum term prescribed by law: 5-year-imprisonment. The appeal trial upheld his conviction but reduced the sentence to 3 years.

The appellate court’s decision in upholding his conviction with actual imprisonment was the last straw for Bùi Hữu Tuân, and he committed the unimaginable act of setting himself on fire.

From a legal standpoint, Tuân was correct in protesting his conviction and his sentence because the first element of the crime “abusing official position, power in the performance of official duties” seemed to have been conveniently ignored throughout his criminal proceedings.

In the same article published back in November 2017, Pháp Luật newspaper reported that it was established at trial that all of the money which Tuân and his co-defendants received from the villagers, was donated to various community services projects in the village.

Neither Tuân or any of his co-defendants had used any portion of the money for personal gains.

In other words, it is almost certain that the prosecution would not be able to prove the first element of the crime alleged against him, that he did commit an act for personal gain or other self-seeking purposes.

Worse, the evidence further showed that Tuân did submit the villagers’ requests to the ward’s officials, asking them to give out the land to people for burial and worship purposes. Pháp Luật newspaper also wrote, back in November 2017, that they had interviewed the villagers independently and were told that the local officials were present, at all times, to survey the land with the defendants.

And while Tuân and two of his deputy chiefs were tried and convicted, none of the ward’s officials had to face criminal charges even though the same evidence could be used against them.

By the same token, it could be argued that if the evidence were not enough to file charges against the local officials, then it certainly would not be enough to convict Tuân and the co-defendants.

Undeniably, Tuân’s trial and conviction again delineate the inefficient and broken legal system in Vietnam where people can be charged, tried, and convicted with no evidence to prove the required elements of the crime.

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Freedom of expression

“Minds” over Facebook: Vietnamese Netizens’ Great Cyber Exodus?

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Photo Credit: Adorkableaznbunny

In the past two days, the “F-Generation” of Vietnam started what seems to be an online exodus when many well-known Facebookers announced that they are moving on to Minds.com – an alternate platform for social media.

The “F” in F-Generation stands for “Facebook” as the online social media giant has a dominant presence in the country where some statistics raised the number of users to be between 50 to 60 million.

For about two months, people had been protesting both online and offline against the latest Cybersecurity law which was passed by an overwhelming 86.86% of the National Assembly.

The law raised concerns over Internet users’ privacy, people’s freedom of expression, and their right to access the Internet.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, declared: “This bill, which squarely targets free expression and access to information, will provide yet one more weapon for the government against dissenting voices. It is no coincidence that it was drafted by the country’s Ministry of Public Security, notorious for human rights violations.”

In less than two days, some of the prominent Facebookers have received thousands of subscribers over at their freshly minted Minds accounts.

In the same time, reports of pages and personal accounts have been taken down by Facebook also surfaced.

Trương Thị Hà, a victim of police brutality during the last “Black Sundays” protest, announced on Minds this morning that her account has been deactivated by Facebook.

After she posted a letter to her university professor, asking him to explain why he stood there while the police brutalized her during her detention after the protest, that very post was deleted for “violating Facebook community standards” at about 8:30 a.m. Then, her entire account seemed to have disappeared by 10:40 a.m.

According to author Claire Bernish who wrote about Minds back in June 2015, Facebook could finally meet its match. Minds gives users the familiarity with many features they have already accustomed to on Facebook while commits to protecting their privacy.

“Minds takes the government’s eyes out of the equation by encrypting private messages and using open-source code that any programmer can check,” Bernish explained.

“We are a free and open-source platform to launch your digital brand, social network, and mobile app. We are also a social network ourselves. It is a global social network of social networks,” the Minds team declared.

The hacker collective Anonymous also backed Minds, citing the fact that the founders of the new online social media shared the same vision of those who use the Internet for activism.

According to the Wired UK: “Two of those on the Minds team – Bill Ottman and Lori Fena – have strong backgrounds dealing with privacy and freedom of expression issues and are both known for their internet-related activism. It is likely these are the type of people that the company is hoping to attract – those with a cause, who want to build something and share it openly with others who may also have a cause.”

President Trần Đại Quang signed the Cybersecurity bill into law on June 25, 2018, although some 27,000.00 signatures of citizens who had expressed their objection to the proposal of the law, were delivered to his office during the prior weekend.

It seems as if the activists and human rights defenders from Vietnam might have found a friend in Minds because the reason they chose Facebook in the first place, was to use the platform as a tool to advance a cause: promoting human rights and democracy in the country.

While not all of them agreed to the solution of leaving Facebook and saw that as a sign of defeat, the silence from Facebook during the last two months as the Cybersecurity law stormed the nation could force many activists to reconsider whether to continue to use it as their primary platform. Most are still using both platforms, but all seemed to agree that if Facebook agreed to comply with the new Cybersecurity, then it could mean they will have to leave for good.

Vietnamese netizens are no strangers to such online “resettlement.” Back in 2009, when Yahoo 360 blog closed down its operation, Facebook quickly became the next best choice in the country.

Almost ten years later, while Facebook could still enjoy its reign in the country as the most used online social media platform, the power of Vietnamese users should not be underestimated by anyone.

Afterall, Vietnamese are a group of people whose contemporary history entwined with mass migration and exodus. They have a lot of experience with starting over, yet again, and they will not be afraid to do so.

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Human Rights

Black Sundays Report: Vietnamese People’s Response To Police Brutality During June 2018 Protests

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Photo Credit: Nhật Ký Biểu Tình/Protestors' Diary Facebook Page

Civilians, victims of police brutality and arbitrary detention, academics, activists, researchers, and a lot more people from all walks of life inside and outside of Vietnam got together and produced a report on the two “Black Sundays” of June 10 and June 17, 2018.

It is the Vietnamese people’s unified and firm response to the vicious repression by the government during the latest rounds of protest in the country.

According to the Facebook page of Nhật Ký Biểu Tình (Protestors’ Diary), copies of the report have been delivered to the UN OHCHR, other international NGOs working on human rights as well as various foreign embassies.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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