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Human Rights

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.

Human Rights

Pham Doan Trang’s Indictment Is Public Today; What Do We Know About Her Case?

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Pham Doan Trang (Photo: Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera). Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

The indictment against journalist and democracy activist Pham Doan Trang was made public on October 18, Vietnam time. We are summarizing the main issues from the 15-page indictment, which you can read here in Vietnamese.

The main points of the indictment are:

  • The indictment stated that the investigation was done between September 22, 2016 and October 7, 2020. October 7, 2020 was also the day that the authorities arrested Doan Trang.
  • The Department of Cyber Security and High Tech Crimes under the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the national police in Vietnam, petitioned the investigation department to pursue legal proceedings against Doan Trang on May 4, 2020 and October 7, 2020 and included its documents and materials against her.
  • The Department of Information and Communications of Hanoi City also submitted two petitions with documents and materials to the MPS on December 26, 2017 and January 7, 2019, requesting legal proceedings against Doan Trang.
  • The Investigation Unit of Hanoi City’s Police formally opened the investigation on September 10, 2020.
  • The decision to initiate criminal proceedings against Doan Trang was issued on September 28, 2020.
  • Doan Trang was arrested under a warrant on October 7, 2020 in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • She refused to provide her laptop’s password to the police and accordingly, the police could not access its data.
  • She also refused to acknowledge the Facebook account of the name “Pham Doan Trang” belonged to her, and the investigative unit could not charge her for the information posted via that account on social media.
  • Doan Trang acknowledged that she was one of the authors of the “Report Assessment of the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion in relation to the exercise to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Vietnam” in both English and Vietnamese. This report was published on the website of Luat Khoa Magazine.
  • On February 19, 2021, the Authority of Information Security (under the Ministry of Information and Communications) submitted a document to the investigative unit which stated that it could not determine who owned and managed the domain name luatkhoa.org to pursue further legal proceedings against it.
  • The indictment stated that Doan Trang repeatedly committed unlawful conduct which can be used to increase her punishment.
  • The indictment also did not find any facts to reduce the punishment against her.
  • The investigation of her case was concluded on August 26, 2021.
  • The indictment stated that Doan Trang continued her unlawful conduct from 2017 to 2019 so both the 1999 Penal Code and the 2015 Penal Code (which took effect on January 1, 2018) could be used to prosecute her.
  • However, the indictment also stated that Doan Trang did not confess to any of these crimes and that the 1999 Penal Code would be more beneficial to the defendant since Article 88 of that penal code starts the sentence at 3 years imprisonment versus 5 years imprisonment under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code. Therefore, the government dropped charges under Article 117 and only prosecuted Doan Trang under Article 88.

The Evidence against Pham Doan Trang under the indictment:

  • English document named “Brief report on the marine life disaster in Vietnam”;
  • English document named “General Assessments of the human rights situation in Vietnam”;
  • English and Vietnamese versions of the “Report Assessment of the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion in relation to the exercise of the right to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Vietnam”;
  • Two interviews with Pham Doan Trang by BBC News  Vietnamese and Radio Free Asia – Vietnamese (RFA) in 2018.

Formal indictment:

The Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office prosecuted Doan Trang under Article 88, Section 1, subsections a, b, and c for “propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam ” of the 1999 Penal Code. The sentencing for this crime will be 3 to 12 years imprisonment.

The indictment is dated August 30, 2021. However, it was only made public on October 18, 2021, in Vietnam, just more than two weeks before Pham Doan Trang’s trial. For almost two months, Doan Trang’s family and her attorneys, as well as the public, have been kept in the dark about the case Vietnam has against her. 

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Vietnam To Try Pham Doan Trang For Propagandizing Against The State On November 4, 2021

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

On October 14, 2021, attorney Dang Dinh Manh, one of Pham Doan Trang’s lawyers, posted on his Facebook that the People’s Court of Hanoi will try the prominent journalist and writer on November 4, 2021. Manh further indicated that the same court will also try Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam – two of the Duong Noi farmers – on November 3, 2021.[1]

Furthermore, sources informed The Vietnamese Magazine that the authorities have yet to officially approve any of Doan Trang’s attorneys to be her legal representatives. Attorney Manh confirmed that the government informed him of the information about Doan Trang’s trial via telephone. 

On October 6, 2021, Pham Chinh Truc, Doan Trang’s brother, received a notice from the Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office regarding his sister’s case status. That day also marked one year since the Vietnamese authorities arrested Doan Trang in Ho Chi Minh City. During this entire time, she has been held incommunicado. Her lawyers also received minimal information from the authorities about her case. 

Hanoi People’s Procuracy notified Truc that they had decided to transfer the case to the People’s Court of Hanoi after recommending her indictment on August 30, 2021. 

The Procuracy, however, did not specify what its recommendations are and what have been her conducts that fall under its possible charges against Pham Doan Trang. It is charging her with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” which falls under either Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code; she faces the possibility of a 20-year sentence. The Procuracy also failed to provide any evidence that it may have found during the year-long investigation leading up to the case being transferred to the Court. 

However, because none of her attorneys have yet to be officially recognized by the government, they did not receive the government indictment. In other words, both her family and her attorneys still do not know what evidence the government has against Doan Trang or the details of the charges against her. In the next few days, her attorneys will file a motion to delay her trial so that they can better prepare for her defense, The Vietnamese Magazine has learned.

Trinh Huu Long, the co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV) and one of Doan Trang’s closest colleagues told The Vietnamese:

“It’s highly unusual that an activist is held completely incommunicado until just before the trial such as has happened with Doan Trang. This is nothing less than an extremely severe violation of both domestic and international laws. It is also ironic. The government wants to punish Doan Trang because she made it look bad, and Vietnam calls this is the rule of law, while the government itself has long gotten away with all sorts of inhuman treatment and violations of its own laws.”

Notes:

[1] Our previous version of this article has stated that Pham Doan Trang’s trial will be on November 3, 2021. However, Attorney Dang Dinh Manh since then has corrected his earlier statement and her trial will be on November 4, 2021.

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Tightening The Noose: The Latest Developments In Vietnam’s Assault On Internet Freedom

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Screenshot of Vietnam section on CIVICUS website. Photo source: CIVICUS.

On August 25, 2021, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met with several of Vietnam’s top leaders. According to a report by Reuters, while the focus of their dialogue centered on the South China Sea dispute and the strengthening of U.S presence in the region, she also brought up several human rights concerns with the Vietnamese government. Although Harris did not provide details about what they had discussed, the vice president assured the press that “[the United States] was “not going to shy away” from difficult conversations with countries the United States has partnerships with.

Prior to her arrival, Vietnam was already dealing with a surge in Covid-19 infections, which resulted in lockdowns and travel restrictions in several places in the country, including Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. As of September 26, Vietnam has tallied over 476,000 confirmed cases with 18,000 deaths. The Vietnamese government’s approach to containing the spread of the virus has been questionable at best with its use of state media and propaganda to control the narrative and deployment of the military to enforce lockdown measures. 

Yet, despite the ongoing health crisis and the dialogue with the U.S. vice president, Vietnam continues its crackdown, detention, and imprisonment of several online critics, journalists, and activists. 

Freedom on the Net 2021

Freedom House, a US-based organization founded to support and defend democracy worldwide, released its annual Freedom on the Net report on September 21, 2021. This report analyzes the state of accessibility and censorship of a country’s cyber domain, alongside violations of internet users’ rights, and ranks each nation as being Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. It comes as no surprise that Vietnam continues to fare poorly in this regard; it has been classified as Not Free for three consecutive years and has been performing terribly under the standards set by Freedom House. 

This research highlights several aspects of the state of internet freedom in Vietnam. Regarding accessibility, Freedom House states that smartphone and internet penetration in the country has been good with internet prices becoming more affordable. However, connectivity continues to remain an issue for those living in extreme poverty and for ethnic minorities who live in the remote mountainous areas of Vietnam. Censorship also continues to be practiced by the Vietnamese government as it blocks or filters content coming from individuals and organizations that are critical of the regime. Predictably, Vietnam’s violation of internet-user rights is just as rampant compared to prior years with “police routinely [flouting] due process, arresting bloggers and online activists without a warrant or retaining them in custody beyond the maximum period allowed by law.”

CIVICUS: Latest Developments in Vietnam

On September 27, 2021, CIVICUS, an international alliance of various organizations that aim to strengthen citizen action and civil society worldwide, released its own report that details more recent events regarding the state of internet freedom in Vietnam. Similar to Freedom House, CIVICUS classifies Vietnam as Closed according to its own standards; a country with this rating exhibits “a complete closure of civic space” where “an atmosphere of fear and violence prevails, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity.” Criticism of those in power is also severely punished. Likewise, media freedom is virtually non-existent and the internet is heavily censored.

The CIVICUS report begins by highlighting the cases of several Facebook users who were arrested or imprisoned under Articles 117 and 331 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code. Nguyen Van Lam and Tran Hoang Minh were both found guilty by Vietnamese courts of violating these statutes on July 20, 2021. Lam was sentenced to nine years in prison for “posting anti-state writings and sharing videos and other content, including broadcasts considered politically subversive,” and for “creating, storing, disseminating information and materials against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Minh was given five years of jail time for “abusing democratic freedom” and for his objections to the Dong Tam land dispute incident

The report continues with the arrests of Facebookers Tran Hoang Huan and Bui Van Thuan, on August 10, 2021, and August 30, 2021, respectively. Huan’s recent posts voiced his objections and concerns regarding Vietnam’s use of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines. He was charged by the Tien Giang People’s Procuracy for “making, storing and spreading or propagandizing information or documents against the state under Article 117 of the Penal Code.”  Bui Van Thuan was arrested in his home by policemen who pretended to be medical workers. Bui Van Thuan’s wife, Trinh Nhung, stated with The 88 Project that Thuan had previously posted “biting commentaries against the government’s handling of COVID-19 and other political issues.”

The more recent cases of Nguyen Thuy Duong and Nguyen Duy Linh are also mentioned in the report. CIVICUS states that Amnesty International had reported on September 2, 2021, that Duong had been fined 5 million dong (US$220) for sharing a Facebook post that accused Vietnamese authorities of neglect during the COVID-19 lockdown. This post blamed the government for the rampant spread of hunger among city residents during this time. Nguyen Duy Linh was arrested on September 14 and charged by state authorities with “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the country’s Criminal Code.

Updates regarding the case of detained human rights defender, journalist, and co-founder of The Vietnamese and the Luat Khoa online magazines, Pham Doan Trang, are also included in the CIVICUS report. On September 6, 2021, the government informed Doan Trang’s lawyer, Luan Le, that his client would be “formally indicted with ‘conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code.” Despite her case being brought to the attention of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), she still faces the very real possibility of being sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. 

Radio Free Asia’s coverage regarding the arrest of five journalists from the Facebook-based news outlet, Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper) is also mentioned in the report. Truong Chau Huu Danh, Nguyen Thanh Nha, Doan Kien Giang, Nguyen Phuong Trung Bao, and Le The Thang were charged with violating Article 331 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code for posting “anti-state and reactionary information” which delved into information that was “inappropriate, distorting, against the country’s interests, and slanderous of the people’s administration.” Thang is currently released on bail while the other four journalists are still in detention. Truong Chau Huu Danh, the founder of Bao Sach, also faces the additional charge of posting stories that “generated bad interactions between internet users in the cyber environment” which “propagandized, distorted, defamed and seriously slandered Party organizations and local Party committees.”

Tran Huu Duc and Le Thi Kim Phi were accused by the authorities of using Facebook to connect with members of the U.S.-based Provisional Government of Vietnam, an organization founded in 1991 by former soldiers and refugees who remained loyal to the South Vietnamese government after the war. Than Huu Duc was arrested in January 2021 and charged under Article 109 of Vietnam’s Penal Code for “gathering information on Nghe An residents … for a referendum on naming [Provisional Government of Vietnam] member, Dao Minh Quan, as president of Vietnam.” Duc was also accused of “posting political content online” that opposed government policies and “slandering leaders of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party.” In September 2021, Le Thi Kim Phi was arrested and charged under the vague clause of “carrying out activities to overthrow the government.” 

In January 2018, the Provisional Government of Vietnam was labeled a “terrorist organization” by the Vietnamese authorities. 

Additional Restrictions on Internet Freedom 

Following the passage of the controversial Cybersecurity Law in 2018, the CIVICUS report further mentions a draft of a government decree which further restricts internet freedom by limiting live-streaming on popular social media sites. CIVICUS states that, “under the terms of the decree, any account that operates on a social media platform in Vietnam and has more than 10,000 followers must provide contact information to authorities” and that “only registered accounts will be allowed to live-stream.” The draft also imposes additional responsibilities on social media providers, requiring them to block or remove content within 24 hours if they receive a “justified complaint” from an individual or organization. 

When passed this decree, coupled with the already draconian Cybersecurity Law, will serve to further cement the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) rule over the country’s already restrictive cyberspace, putting social media users more at risk of the government’s retribution and reducing social media platforms to tools of government surveillance. 

Freedom on the Net 2021 provides an overall look at the state of internet freedom in Vietnam while the CIVICUS report presents recent, documented, and specific events that support Freedom House’s outlook on the country. Both illustrate a very grim and depressing reality about Vietnam: that despite international pressure, in the form of U.S Vice-President Harris’ visit, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the VCP is more concerned about maintaining power and control over its people than prioritizing their welfare and safety during these difficult times; the Party would rather control the narrative than work to give actual aid to much of its struggling populace. 

In the end, the actions of the Vietnamese government serve only as a reminder of its ineptitude during times of crisis and its callousness to the plight of everyday Vietnamese; in its relentless attack against internet freedom and freedom of speech, the more pressing and immediate threats to the welfare of the Vietnamese people remain half-heartedly addressed. 

Citations:

  1. Bose, N. (2021, August 25). U.S. VP Harris offers Vietnam support to counter Beijing in the South China Sea. Reuters. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-vp-harris-offers-vietnam-support-counter-beijing-south-china-sea-2021-08-25/
  2. Jaffe, A. (2021, August 26). Harris says she urged Vietnam to free political dissidents. – The Diplomat. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/harris-says-she-urged-vietnam-to-free-political-dissidents/
  3. Nguyen, J. (2021, August 19). State media and social media during the COVID-19 pandemic: A tale of two cities in Vietnam. The Vietnamese. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/08/state-media-and-social-media-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-a-tale-of-two-cities-in-vietnam/
  4. Nguyen, J. (2021, September 12). Why did the Vietnamese Communist Party militarize its fight against COVID-19? The Vietnamese. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/09/why-did-the-vietnamese-communist-party-militarize-its-fight-against-covid-19/
  5. Shahbaz, A., & Funk, A. (n.d.). Freedom on the net 2021: The global drive to control Big Tech. Freedom House. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2021/global-drive-control-big-tech
  6. Reed, A. (2021, September 21). New research: Vietnam remains “not free” on internet freedom, Freedom House says. The Vietnamese. Retrieved Sept 30, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/09/new-research-vietnam-remains-not-free-on-internet-freedom-freedom-house-says/
  7. Huu Long, T. (2021, September 21). Vietnam: Freedom on the net 2021 country report. Freedom House. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://freedomhouse.org/country/vietnam/freedom-net/2021
  8. C. I. V. I. C. U. S. (2021, September 27). CRACKDOWN ON ONLINE CRITICS PERSISTS IN VIETNAM AS NEW DECREE CONTROLLING LIVESTREAMING PROPOSED. Civicus. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2021/09/27/crackdown-online-critics-persists-vietnam-new-decree-controlling-livestreaming-proposed/
  9. Civicus. (2020, April 7). ONLINE DEBATE ON DONG TAM INCIDENT FOLLOWED BY PANDEMIC SILENCED BY VIETNAM AUTHORITIES. Civicus. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2020/04/07/online-debate-dong-tam-incident-followed-pandemic-silenced-vietnam-authorities/
  10. The 88 Project (2021, September 6). Vietnam free expression newsletter no. 34/2021 – week of August 30-September 5. The 88 Project. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://the88project.org/newsletter-no-34-2021/
  11. Finney, R. (2021, September 3). Vietnamese facebook user fined for ‘fake news’ as criticism grows of government’s handling of pandemic. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/fine-09032021182640.html
  12. Whong, E. (2021, September 10). Vietnam indicts five journalists from Facebook-based outlet. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/baosach-09092021174755.html
  13. Finney, R. (2021, September 14). Vietnam court sentences member of ‘Provisional Government’ to three-year prison term. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/court-08182021185109.html
  14. Gerin, R. (2021, September 14). Third Vietnamese charged for Facebook connections with US-based Exile Group. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/le-thi-kim-phi-09102021183034.html

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