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How Closed Is Civic Space in Vietnam?

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Photo courtesy: FIDH

UPDATE ON DECEMBER 20, 2018: The correct decree number has been included after more information was released by the organizers of the conference mentioned in this article.

Today, December 19, 2018, the police in Hanoi disrupted an event and forced the organizers to discontinue the Third Annual Conference on the Roles of Government, Civil Society, and other Related Stakeholders in Providing and Monitoring Public Services (Third Annual Conference) which was supposed to last until tomorrow. The conference was organized by several NGOs and CSO working groups in the country, and its disruption again shows alarming signs that civic space in Vietnam is not only closed but getting more restrictive.

As a sunny state in Southeast Asia that often gets praised on many travel and food networks channels, the scores which different international indexes give Vietnam on individual freedoms, such as the classification as a “closed” society by CIVICUS, don’t seem to match up.

However, Vietnam is a country with many paradoxes and the political atmosphere more often than not has proven to be extremely repressive for civil society.

From a few sources on social media, the Hanoi authorities cited an archaic decree as their reasons to stop the above conference. It was not the often used Decree 38/2005/NĐ-CP (Decree 38) (link in Vietnamese), which requires public gatherings of more than five people to seek approval from the Provincial People’s Committee.

This time, the local authorities used a decree that was originated to regulate people’s gatherings during wartime dated back in 1957: Decree 257-TTg (link in Vietnamese). Decree 257 sought to provide the implementation guidelines for Presidential Order 101-SL/L.003 (link in Vietnamese) executed by Ho Chi Minh on May 20, 1957, on the right to freedom of association.

Ironically, while the language of both Decree 257 and Presidential Order 101-SL/L.003 stated the requirement to give 24 hours notice (including verbal notice) of gatherings which would be similar to the Third Annual Conference; neither one mandated such gatherings must be discontinued if notice was not given. More than six decades later, the authorities in Hanoi insist that the Third Annual Conference had to end.

In recent years, despite what the Constitution of 2013 says about the right to peaceful assembly, the Vietnamese authorities, however, often applied Decree 38 to regulate “public gatherings. This decree would allow law enforcement to disperse crowds and mandates the police and army to cooperate with local authorities “to ensure the public order in case of need.”

Here is the first paradox, which is about the nature of Decree 38 and Decree 257, as these are laws that were not passed by the country’s legislative body – the National Assembly. They were orders issued by the administrative branch of the government. One would think that they should be deemed unconstitutional when contradicted directly with what the current Constitution said about the right to peaceful assembly in Vietnam when it was last amended in 2013. But that is not the case.

In reality, the Constitution is often ignored completely, and Decree 38 has been the sword that the police force frequently used to cut right through people’s civil rights again and again. And now, even a decree dated back to June 14, 1957, like No. 257, could trump the current Constitution.

The second paradox is that only one week ago, on December 12, 2018, Ambassador Duong Chi Dung, the Head of Vietnam’s Permanent Mission in Geneva, cited in his speech at the UPR pre-session (an event organized by UPR-Info), that Vietnam, since the last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle in 2014 had implemented 96% of all recommendations it had accepted from the member states to improve human rights conditions in the country.

13 out of the 182 recommendations Vietnam supported back in June 2014 requested the government to guarantee the people’s freedom of peaceful assembly and association. In practice, from 2014 to date, not only that Decree 38 is still being widely and arbitrarily applied in the country, but the authorities now started to enforce another decree which should have been considered obsolete under the country’s current legal framework, seeking to curtail the freedom of association further.

Back to the conference that got stopped mid-way in Hanoi today, even disregarding the constitutionality of Decree 38 and 257, another paradox was the fact that it was not taken place in “public.” The location of the event was at The Hanoi Club, a private hotel.

The definition of “public places,” like the constitutionality of Decree 38 or Decree 257 itself, was never explained or defined in a court of law. While it could arguably be correct to say that the Standing Committee of the National Assembly is entrusted with the power to “interpret the Constitution,” they have never attempted to exercise such power. The judiciary in Vietnam has not been showing interest in taking up the task either.

In the meanwhile, the Ministry of Public Security – the national police force – has taken full advantage of maneuvering Decree 38 – and now, Decree 257 – at their will, without any judicial oversight. What happened today at the Third Annual Conference in Hanoi raised more doubts about the space reserved for civil society organizations to operate freely and independently in Vietnam.

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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