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World Report On The Situation Of Human Rights Defenders: UN Expert Urges Vietnam To Stop Criminalize Activists



Photo courtesy: CIVICUS

This week, the office of UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, released the first global survey on the situation of human rights defenders in 12 years, since the landmark Global Survey conducted in 2006 by the then UN Special Representative Hina Jilani.

Regarding the situation in Vietnam, the report states:

“Human rights defenders are physically attacked, criminalized, given long sentences, held in detention without trial, and tortured and subject to degrading treatment while imprisoned. The government retains strict control over the media, restricts the registration and activities of civil society organizations, and suppresses peaceful assemblies.”

The report noted that while Vietnam guarantees all citizens their human rights, in practice, several law decrees are regularly applied to restrict the rights of human rights defenders.

Citizens do not enjoy the right to a fair trial and to due process. Arbitrary detention is frequently used. The government tries to silence human rights defenders and bloggers, including through physical attacks, torture, criminalization, solitary confinement and degrading treatment in detention. The government exercises strict control on the media and the work of journalists. It takes harsh action against peaceful protests.

There are more than 100 political prisoners in Viet Nam, some serving lengthy prison sentences for the legitimate exercise of their rights. The right to fair trial and due process is not respected. Human rights defenders who face particularly high risks are those who criticize the government, including journalists, bloggers, labor rights defenders, and land and environmental rights defenders.

While Vietnam is party to most core international human rights treaties, the report pointed out that the country “has neither accepted any treaty-based individual complaints procedures nor treaty-based inquiry procedures.” Moreover, it also noted that Vietnam has yet to accede to the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture (CAT-OP), the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming to the abolition of the death penalty (CCPR-OP2-DP).

In 2018 alone, the report stated that the “2016 Law on Belief and Religion that came into effect in 2018 imposes strict registration requirements and enables state interference into the activities and internal affairs of religious groups. It provides the authorities with discretion to penalize unsanctioned religious activity. It includes a clause prohibiting religious practices that damage ‘the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order and social morale’ (Article 5).”

The Penal Code which was amended in 2015 and came into effect in 2018, is found by the Special Rapporteur to be regularly applied against human rights defenders, in particular, “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration (Article 109, previously Article 79 in the 1999 Penal Code); undermining 333 national unity policy (Article 116, previously 87); conducting propaganda against the State (Article 117, previously 88); disrupting security (Article 118, previously 89); causing public disorder (Article 318, previously 245) and abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State (Article 331, previously 258).”

The report also was alarmed by the provision of the newly amended Penal Code that would make defense lawyers liable for “not reporting some types of serious crimes committed by their client.”

On the issue of government’s regulating people’s use of the internet, Decree No. 72/2013/ND-CP of July 15, 2013, on the management, provision and use of internet services and online information, as well as Decree No. 174/2013/ND-CP of November 13, 2013 on penalties for administrative violations against regulations on post and telecommunications, information technology and radio frequency, were mentioned in the report to demonstrate how freedom of expression and freedom to access the internet are further curtailed in Vietnam.

The report raised serious concerns over the new Cybersecurity Law passed in June 2018, requiring “global technology firms such as Facebook and Google to store ‘important’ personal data in Viet Nam, open local offices, remove offensive content upon the request of the government. It also allows the government to conduct an audit of their information systems.”

The Special Rapporteur took note that “there are no laws, policies, or practices that protect the rights of human rights defenders,” and described various cases of human rights defenders being harassed, physically assaulted, arbitrarily arrested and detained, unfairly tried and imprisoned. From the April 2018 trial of the Brotherhood of Democracy to the harsh and unfair sentences given in the cases of Tran Kim And, Le Thanh Tung, Luu Van Vinh, Nguyen Van Hoa, Nguyen Viet Dung, and Le Dinh Luong, they were all mentioned with specific details in the report.

The prison conditions of Mother Mushroom and Tran Thi Nga, as well as the attack on human rights defenders and blogger Pham Doan Trang in August 2018, were used as examples for the treatment of women HRDs in Vietnam.

In regards to government’s suppression on demonstrations and disperses public assemblies, the report wrote: “When people gathered in 2016 to demonstrate against the Formosa company after the waste spill, the authorities used tear gas and excessive force to disperse the crowd. In June 2018, when thousands of people gathered in different places to protest a proposal to allow foreign firms to have 99-year leases in new special economic zones. The police detained protesters and subject some to beatings before releasing them.”

The report also noted that during the past 12 years, the office of the Special Rapporteur had sent numerous communications to the government of Vietnam with regards to the dire conditions of human rights defenders in the country, but most of them did not receive a reply.

The Special Rapporteur urges the government to “cease the criminalization of human rights defenders and to release all who have been detained and imprisoned for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, and association.

He also “urges the government to ensure that the detention of prisoners adheres to the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) and that everyone enjoys the right to a fair trial and due process. He calls for the government to review, amend and/or repeal laws that restrict the rights of human rights defenders and to introduce legislation, policies and administrative practices that protect human rights defenders. He recommends that the government become party to the other core human rights treaties and to establish a national human rights institution that is fully compliant with the Paris Principles.”

The complete World Report can be accessed here.

Human Rights

Latest Review Under UN’s Human Rights Treaty Body Highlighted Vietnam’s Dismal Records




The ICCPR Review of Vietnam During the HRC's 125th Session. Photo credits: Screenshot from UN's WebTV

“How do you explain or assess that Vietnam is ranked 175 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontiers’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index?”

The question from Mr. Fathalla, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, succinctly summed up Vietnam’s human rights situation, especially when it came to those rights involving the people’s freedom of expression.

Between March 11 and 12, 2019 and during their 125th session, the Human Rights Committee completed their review of Vietnam’s compliance and implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Vietnam was 13 years overdue in submitting its third report for the review, which was due in August 2004. As a result, there was a 15-year-gap between the last review and this recent one.

Nevertheless, the questions from the Committee during the two-day-proceeding painted an accurate, but very worrying picture of the human rights situation in the country right now.

The Committee questioned specific contents of the new 2018 Cybersecurity Law and the 2016 Press Law regarding their possible violations of Article 19 of the ICCPR on freedom of expression.

There was scrutiny over the independence of the judiciary in Vietnam where all judges seemed to be members of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Lawyers were disbarred for being human rights defenders themselves, or just by merely took on politically sensitive cases, such as those involved police brutality and torture committed by the state’s officials.

The most recently amended Penal Code has taken a step further in limiting and curtailing the practice of law when it requires lawyers to make mandatory reports on their clients in a few specific instances – for example when it involves a “national security” crime – or risk being prosecuted themselves.

At the same time, the penal code sections relating to “national security” are used almost exclusively against human rights defenders and political dissidents in Vietnam. As such, the mandatory report requirement seems to especially deny this group of people their right to a fair trial with competent legal assistance.

There were also concerns from the Committee over the fact that police brutality had become more prevalent in recent years due to impunity.

Prison conditions in general, and especially the treatment of human rights defenders in prison, were also brought up repeatedly during the proceeding, where the Committee rejected Vietnam’s attempt to brush off the issue by offering evidence of some handful visits to prisons by foreign embassies in recent years.

The Committee’s members instead referred to the UN’s Committee Against Torture’s recommendations after the review of Vietnam under the Convention in November 2018, where numerous alarming issues regarding the poor conditions in Vietnam’s prisons were addressed, such as the use of shackle and solitary confinement.

Vietnam was named as one of the world’s top executioners in 2016 by an Amnesty International’s report on the death penalty, after the Ministry of Public Security released some rare statistics in February 2017, stating that 429 prisoners were executed between August 8, 2013, and June 30, 2016, at an average rate of 147 executions per year.

At the review, facts involved the wrongful convictions involving two death-row inmates, Ho Duy Hai and Le Van Manh, were also addressed in details by members of the Committee.

The rights of indigenous people in Vietnam also took center after reports on their religious persecution and forced statelessness were submitted to the Committee in advance by NGOs working on these issues. Among them were Boat People SOS, Viet Nam Coalition Against Torture (VN-CAT), Council of Indigenous Peoples in Today’s Viet Nam (CIP-TVN), The Advocates for Human Rights and Tai Studies Center, Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, and Hmong United for Justice.

The UN received close to thirty shadow reports from civil society organizations before the review, which included both independent groups and NGOs that have an affiliation with the Vietnamese government.

The Human Rights Committee is expected to issue their concluding observations in the coming months.

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Human Rights

EU Officials Raised Concern Over Worrying Human Rights Situation In Vietnam




EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström and representatives from independent Vietnamese CSOs. Photo Credits: Commissioner Malmström's official Twitter account.

“The human rights situation in Vietnam is worrying,” according to Commissioner for Trade of the European Union, Cecilia Malmström, after her meeting with independent Vietnamese civil society organizations on March 14, 2019.

When announcing the adoption of the EU-Vietnam trade and investment agreements (EV-FTA) in October 2018, Commissioner Malmström had hoped that such agreements would “help spread European high standards and create possibilities for in-depth discussions on human rights and the protection of citizens.”

However, during recent months, the human rights situation in Vietnam did not improve.

Instead, it became more concerning.

Commissioner Malmström is not the only EU official who has expressed concerns over the worrying trend of suppression on human rights in Vietnam in recent months.

32 MEPs from across the political spectrum of the EU Parliament signed a letter back in September 2018, calling on the EU to demand specific human rights improvements from Vietnam before the ratification of the EV-FTA.

EU Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, Maya Kocijancic, also confirmed in an interview with Radio Free Asia earlier this month, that during the 8th EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue held in Brussels on March 4, 2019, the EU had addressed specific cases of prisoners of conscience with the Vietnamese delegation.

Ms. Kocijancic also stated during the same interview that the annual dialogue “raised a wide range of issues related to freedom  of expression, cybersecurity, the death penalty, environmental and labor rights, cooperation within the United Nations framework.”

As of today, The 88 Project’s database documented 21 Vietnamese activists are held in pre-trial detention. There are 218 other activists currently serving a prison sentence; among them, 30 are female activists and 51 indigenous political prisoners.

According to VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment), one of the organizations attended the meeting with Commissioner Malmström, the unconditional and in-country release of Vietnamese prisoners of conscience must be the first human rights benchmark before the ratification of the EV-FTA.

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Human Rights

Wife of Arbitrarily Detained Facebooker: He Only Exercised His Constitutional Rights




Tran Thanh Phuong and his wife, Le Thi Khanh, with one of the couple's daughter. Photo courtesy: Le Thi Khanh.

The Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, announced today at a preparatory meeting for the DPRK-US summit in Hanoi that the country needs to “prove to the whole world that it is peaceful, friendly and orderly … as (the core of) its culture, a way of life of Vietnamese people.”

The price to pay for such an image could very well be the freedom of those who dare to exercise their constitutional rights like Le Thi Khanh’s husband, Tran Thanh Phuong.

For almost six months, Le Thi Khanh, a garment maker in Ho Chi Minh City, has not been able to see her husband who was taken away by the local authorities since September 1, 2018.

Her husband is Tran Thanh Phuong, a Facebooker who has been in police detention for attempting to participate in a protest during the celebration of Vietnam’s National Day.

As a pre-emptive strike, the police “invited” Phuong to come to the local station to talk to them, but they then detained him without a formal arrest warrant, according to his wife.

At first, Khanh could still bring her husband food and meet him once a day at the local police station of their ward.

But on September 7, 2018, when she went to see her husband, the police told her they had transferred him to a different location yet refused to tell her where.

Khanh then went to the District’s Police Department to look up her husband’s whereabouts.

There, the police asked her to provide them with her marriage certificate before allowing visitation. Once she did, they promised her that she would get to see him on October 10, 2018.

Came October 10, 2018, Khanh packed some food to bring to her husband with high hopes that she could see him, but again she was disappointed.

The District’s police told her they had transferred him to No. 4, Phan Dang Luu Street which is the detention center under the Ho Chi Minh City Police Department, The Security Investigative Unit.

She immediately went to No. 4 Detention Center and was able to confirm that her husband was, indeed, held there.

Since then, she was only able to send him food every two months, but the authorities have yet to allow visitation.

She also has no idea what crimes her husband has been charged with because no one would tell her anything.

But Khanh was aware that Phuong was using his Facebook to look up information relating to Vietnam’s Constitution, as well as the exercise of their constitutional rights.

“My husband often read different groups’ postings on Facebook about disseminating our Constitution. He said we should read to gain our own knowledge so that when the police arrest us, we could know what rights we have and demand them,” Khanh told us.

Not being to know how her husband has been doing was an ordeal which Khanh went through in the past six months while trying to make end’s meet to raise the couple’s two daughters, entirely on her own now.

Tran Thanh Phuong has effectively been held incommunicado by various police forces in Ho Chi Minh City since September 7, 2018.

Khanh also told us that on October 15, 2010, the police even tried to summon her 13-year-old daughter to come in for questioning on the 19th regarding their investigation of the case.

She, of course, refused to comply with the outrageous request.

Phuong was alleged to be a member of a dissident group calls “Constitution” (Hiến pháp).

The group’s members have been arrested and detained arbitrarily by the Vietnamese authorities from September 2018 to date.

While the members acknowledged that they participated in the June 10, 2018’s mass protest against the then draft bills of the cybersecurity and the Special Economic Zones law, all information surrounding their activities – including those coming from the authorities – could not openly show their criminal liability.

One of them has been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment.

In that case, the defendant – Huynh Truong Ca – was alleged by the government to have live-streamed 40 clips on Facebook criticizing the government, the Communist Party, and calling on people to exercise their constitutional right: participate in demonstrations.

Such conduct, however, not only could not constitute the legal merits of a crime but also was a person’s political opinion which international human rights law protects.

Notwithstanding international law standards, the government of Vietnam often violates even its constitution while suppressing people during protests and arresting them.

The 2013 Constitution guarantees all Vietnamese people the right to assemble and to demonstrate peacefully.

The absence of a valid constitutional protection mechanism, however, has allowed the government’s unlawful activities continued.

Crowd control’s measures in Vietnam were recently broadcasted internationally when the Hanoi’s security police detained and questioned the Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump impersonators duo ahead of the DRPK-US summit.

The police’s intention to avoid any remote possibility of people gathering during the event was apparent when they demanded the two’s itinerary while in Hanoi and had since surveilled their movements.

Spontaneous gatherings in public are frown upon by the VCP because its leaders could not and would not risk the chance – however slim – of having a protest breaks out, especially during a highly observed event like the Kim-Trump peace summit.

Since September 2018 to date, The Vietnamese has documented over a dozen incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention. More than half of them involved the members of the Constitution group where Tran Thanh Phuong is a member.

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