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Human Rights

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

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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.

Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – December 2019

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• Focus:

  1. Police impede festivities for Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism founder Huynh Phu So’s birthday in An Giang province
  2. The Inter-religious Council of Vietnam issues letter protesting religious oppression in Vietnam and China
  3. Conference held regarding two years of implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and supplemental Decree 162/2017/NĐ-CP, which provides further regulatory details and methods of implementation

• Changes in laws regarding religion

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. Police impede festivities for Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism founder Huynh Phu So’s birthday in An Giang province

On December 18, 2019, Mr. Le Quang Hien, chief secretary of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board, an organization not recognized by the state, reported that police set up roadblocks at the intersections surrounding the temporary office of the church. These actions were intended to prevent followers from gathering at the church to celebrate the centennial birthday of founder Huynh Phu So on December 20th, 2019.

Hien stated that police began setting up the post at six in the morning; they did not allow followers to pass through and kept a close watch on the committee’s members.

“These actions– banning followers from exercising their freedom of faith and preventing citizens from having the freedom of movement–are a grave violation of human rights and freedom of religion”, Hien wrote on his Facebook.

In Vietnam, religions not recognized by the state face government discrimination. The state sees these groups as high-risk and likely to carry out anti-state activities. As the operational activities of religions often involve gatherings of people, the Vietnamese state regularly prevents followers of non-state-controlled religions from gathering, violating citizens’ freedom of assembly. These obstructive actions are often carried out under false pretenses, such as plainclothes police carrying out administrative, traffic, or vehicle checks. Some go so far as to put followers and activists under house arrest.

2. The Inter-religious Council of Vietnam issues letter protesting religious oppression in Vietnam and China

On December 17th, 2019, the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam, an independent alliance established in 1990 representing five of Vietnam’s larger religions, issued a letter of protest regarding the oppression of religion and human rights in Vietnam and China.

In the protest letter, the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam asserted that the Vietnamese state implemented discriminatory policies towards independent religious groups that refused state control. The council stated that citizens’ freedom of religion and faith were being severely curtailed by the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, the Fatherland Front, and religious groups established by the state. The state was repressing, threatening, beating, and detaining dignitaries of independent religions, and many religious premises were being threatened, confiscated, or abolished by the state.

The council also brought up the issue of peaceful democracy, environmental, and social justice activists being charged with anti-government crimes that carried heavy sentences, including journalist Pham Chi Dung, who was recently arrested on November 21st, 2019. Similarly, citizens who express opinions regarding Chinese expansionism are hindered and arbitrarily detained.

In regards to China, the council condemned the totalitarian control of Beijing’s authoritarian regime exercised over ethnic minorities, religious groups, activists, Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Tibetans. The council also touched on the issue of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, including the severe and violent repression that students and protesters faced, as well as Chinese encroachment in the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea).

The council petitioned the European Union to temporarily postpone the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement until civil and political rights in Vietnam, including freedom of religion, were guaranteed in accordance with international law.

3. Conference held regarding two years of implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and supplemental Decree 162/2017/NĐ-CP, which provides further regulatory details and methods of implementation

On December 31st, 2019, the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front and the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs organized a conference evaluating two years of implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and a supplemental decree on methods of implementation.

Beyond achievements in controlling religious activities, Mr. Vu Chien Thang, head of the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, also stated that in the past two years, the stipulations of the law and its supplementary decree have encountered a number of difficulties: “difficulties such as state management of local-level faiths; advising, implementing, and enforcing policy and related laws that affect one another; surmounting difficulties and inadequacies related to religious land, the management and usage of church property, and the legal institutions themselves”, Thang expressed at the conference.

In practice, the last two years have seen this law and its supplementary decree only contribute to helping the state further control religious activities in conjunction with current law, rather than improve citizens’ freedom of faith and religion. Both the law and its decree allow the state to broadly and deeply interfere in the internal activities and external interactions (raising funds, accepting donations, or organizing activities…) of religious organizations.

The law and its supplementary decree divide religious organizations into two different groups. Organizations that desire recognition and legal status must accept the broad and deep interference of the state in its internal affairs, working in tandem with the government to limit freedom of religion. Other organizations refuse state control, desiring to be independent of the government in order to exercise their freedom of religion. This latter group faces great pressure and the heaviest of restraints from the government.

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Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – November 2019

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• Focus:

  1. The government’s Committee For Religious Affairs certifies the Vietnamese Church of Latter-Day Saints.
  2. Hoa Hao Buddhist Tran Thanh Giang is sentenced to eight years in prison for criticizing state leaders on social media.

• Changes in laws regarding religion

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. The government’s Committee For Religious Affairs certifies the Vietnamese Church of Latter-Day Saints Vietnam.

Five years after the state recognized the Provisional Representative Committee, the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs issued the Vietnamese Church of Latter-Day Saints a certificate for the registration of religious activities on November 15th, 2019.

According to the Great Unity Newspaper, the Church of Latter-Day Saints arrived in Vietnam in 1962 but was forced to cease operations from 1975 to 1995.

Mr. Hoang Van Tung, head of the church committee, says there are approximately 1000 followers, mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

At the certification ceremony, Ms. Thieu Thi Huong, representative of the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, stated that the certification will create more favorable conditions for the church to move towards legal religious entity status.

The certification of a number of religious organizations as above reveals the government’s increasingly open attitude towards permitting religious activities, though the decisions still remain largely subjective rather than following any rule of law.

2. Hoa Hao Buddhist Tran Thanh Giang is sentenced to eight years in prison for criticizing state leaders on social media.

On November 27th, 2019, the People’s Court of An Giang Province sentenced Tran Thanh Giang, age 48, to eight years in prison for social media writings criticizing the government.

According to the An Giang Newspaper, on November 2nd, 2018, the Office of Culture – Information of Cho Moi district (An Giang province), in the process of information control, had discovered Giang’s anti-government writings on Facebook and reported him to police. Cho Moi district police searched Giang’s residence, confiscating 14 cell phones, 12 sim cards, and 4 memory cards.

According to the newspaper, from 2014, Giang used two phone numbers to create a Facebook account with the name “Giang Tran Thanh”. On December 12th, 2018, he changed the name of the account to “Thanh Tran”. Giang used this account to post information opposing the state, defaming the government, and undermining the state’s policy of national and religious unity.

The government printed evidence from Giang’s Facebook account (3,314 pages of documents and 99 video clips) and email (297 pages of documents) to convict him. Giang’s indictment stated that he used email to contact Nguyen The Quang and requested to join the Vietnamese Democracy Party. Quang transferred numerous materials for Giang to post on Facebook, calling for people to oppose the government.

In court, Giang rejected the Inspectorate’s accusations. He denied that the Facebook account “Thanh Tran” belonged to him. He also stated that the witnesses were not objective because they had had the previous conflict with him.

According to RFA, Giang had been an activist for years fighting for the freedom of religion. The An Giang Newspaper said Giang had twice been warned by police for opposing the local government

In the past few years, Hoa Hao Buddhists have been one of the most often and most severely oppressed religious groups in the south. Hoa Hao Buddhists have been particularly vocal about opposing the government’s strict policies controlling religion and have accepted heavy prison sentences accordingly.

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Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – October 2019

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• Focus:

  1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.
  2. In the southern region – Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple.
  3. In the southern region – Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on a hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp.
  4. In the central coastal provinces – the government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.
  5. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

• Changes in laws regarding religion:

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.

Dega Protestantism and the Ha Mon religion continue to be the primary targets of elimination by security forces in the Tay Nguyen highlands.

The government believes both religions are being controlled by FULRO – an armed organization that fought for the autonomy of minorities in the Tay Nguyen highlands but which weakened and disbanded in the 90s – to oppose the state. The government believes that Dega Protestantism was established by former members of FULRO to incite people to demand autonomy in the Tay Nguyen highlands and assert the Ha Mon religion is the heresy that incites and entices many individuals among ethnic minorities.

The reality is the government solely controls the discourse surrounding these two religions. Journalists do not have the freedom to investigate the activities of religions in the Tay Nguyen highlands, and the region has become the most strictly controlled in terms of religious activities.

According to the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs (which belongs to the Ministry of the Interior and directly administers tasks to do with religious security), the Ha Mon religion began developing in 1999 in the two provinces of Kon Tum and Gia Lai, with approximately 3,500 followers. The followers of the Ha Mon religion conduct their religious activities in small groups in private residences, similar to Catholic protocol, rather than in a government-sanctioned church. The activities of the Ha Mon religion were seen by the authorities as disruptive of order and security and needed to be halted. In 2013, the founder of the Ha Mon religion, Ms. Y Gyin of the Bana ethnic group, was sentenced to three years in prison along with seven others who were sentenced to a maximum of 11 years in prison, for undermining national unity (Article 87 of the 1999 Penal Code).

According to the Gia Lai Newspaper, the police of Phu Thien district in Gia Lai province asserted that FULRO was secretly operating in 81 hamlets and villages in the district and needed to be wiped out. District police believe that activities which involve crowds, like weddings, funerals, and birthdays, need to be strictly monitored, as these events serve as covers for unauthorized religious activities that oppose the state.

After the large-scale protests in the 2000s (and up to 2012) related to religion and land, the government’s oppressive activities have spread to religious groups. The government refuses to accept any religious activities that lay outside of its control. Religious groups, principally Protestants and Catholics, have suffered severe government oppression as they demand their right to freedom of religion.

According to our sources, in the last two months or so, approximately three families fled across the border from the Tay Nguyen highlands to Bangkok because of religious oppression. Currently, there are more than 500 individuals of ethnic minorities who are refugees in Bangkok, Thailand and another group of more than 20 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The common forms of government harassment towards religious groups in the Tay Nguyen highlands include:

  • Halting any activities involving groups of people, even if they are not religious in nature
  • Preventing individuals from leaving their home hamlet or village
  • Monitoring the daily activities of all individuals
  • Placing individuals under house arrest on days in which there are religious activities
  • Regularly coming to homes to interrogate individuals or interrogating those who recently returned from other areas
  • Illegally arresting and holding people in custody
  • Torture, beatings
  • Refusing to carry out administrative procedures for a number of families
  • Hunting down and imprisoning those who flee across the border for religious reasons
  • Punishing individuals by giving them jail sentences

2. Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple

At approximately 2 AM on October 7th, 2019, on the day that the roof of An Hoa Tu temple was going to be re-tiled, six Hoa Hao Buddhists (Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuan, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Cao Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc) were ambushed as they were on the way to An Hoa Tu temple to prevent the roof re-tiling. As the six arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, approximately a kilometer away from An Hoa Tu temple, they encountered a group of individuals who were there waiting for them. This group proceeded to beat the six Buddhists in order to prevent their arrival at the temple.

Mr. Vo Thanh Liem, age 79, spoke to RFA regarding the assault: “Today [October 7th, 2019] they took the roof tiles off the church, but the church itself remained untouched. Yesterday, they stacked [the tiles] outside the gate, same today. As we arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, about 40-50 individuals blocked us, beating Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Ms. Nguyen Thi My Trieu; my niece Vo Thi Thu Ba had her phone smashed. Realizing that they were going to beat me as well, I poured gasoline on myself and threatened to end things on my own terms, after which they left. They used long sticks, beating people so hard, the sticks smashed to smithereens.”

Other Hoa Hao Buddhists also saw that a crowd of security forces was watching over the stacks [of tiles] around An Hoa Tu temple as the roof tiles were being replaced. On October 9th, 2019, Hoa Hao Buddhist Le Tan Tai was held down and assaulted by security forces, who took his phone after believing that he was planning to record the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple. Tai said he was further slapped in the face by a female plainclothes police officer. Leaders of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism were also kept under house arrest during the days of the An Hoa Tu temple roof re-tiling.

The conflict surrounding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple demonstrates the government’s overreaching interference in the internal affairs of a religion. Religious groups that do not accept government control are not only vulnerable and unable to freely operate but are also assaulted for expressing their opinions. Religious groups that accept state control are protected by security forces, are provided budgets, are allowed to carry out religious activities, and become a force to help the state manage religion as a whole. This disparity in treatment tends to exacerbate rivalries between the different branches of a religion.

3. Hoa Hao Buddhists dispute the re-tiling at An Hoa Tu temple

After disagreement regarding the roof re-tiling of the An Hoa Tu temple, the followers of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism (PHHB) continue to oppose the Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board – which has supervisory rights over An Hoa Tu temple and is the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government – regarding the replacement of bricks that are still intact at the home temple.

The followers of PHHB assert that the recent activities regarding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple are a gradual attempt to completely change the original state of the home temple. They state that this will alter the home temple’s historical markers.

4. Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp in Dong Nai province

According to RFA, the wife of Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a Hoa Hao Buddhist and a prisoner serving his sentence at Xuan Loc Prison Camp, reported that Nam went on a hunger strike for six days, from October 11th – 17th, 2019 to protest his transfer from the area for political prisoners to a cell for drug-related criminals.

Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a 37-year-old Hoa Hao Buddhist, chose to practice his religion independent of the state. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2018 for disturbing public order, along with four other Hoa Hao Buddhists, one of whom was sentenced to one year of prison for obstructing officials. According to Human Rights Watch, these verdicts were intended to punish those Hoa Hao Buddhists who demanded religious freedom and refused state control.

Current conditions in prisons are deplorable, though on the whole, political prisoners are able to enjoy better conditions than normal criminals. However, they can be punished by being transferred to cells with less desirable conditions.

The following prison conditions need to be improved:

Using the same water source for eating, drinking, showering, and washing clothes

Meals that are low-quality, unclean, or lack essential nutrients

Prisoners being unable to maintain daily bodily hygiene

Prison cells which are hot, lacking in sunlight, or overcrowded

Prisoners not receiving sleeping nets and suffering mosquito bites

Unreliable health care

The price of food and commodities that prisoners can buy at the canteen being 2 to 3x the market price

Prisoners being overworked

5. The government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.

According to the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church of Phu Yen province, the provincial government issued a notice that it was reclaiming a piece of church land in November 2019. The land, which contained the educational premises of a church at 65 Nguyen Hue, Tuy Hoa city, Phu Yen province, was earmarked for the construction of a pre-school.

The piece of land is under 1000 square meters and includes classrooms and school grounds; it has since belonged to the church before 1975. The church agreed to let the local government borrow the grounds in 1978 to open an elementary school and a pre-school. From then on, the government refused to return the land, creating a deed and merging the piece of land with the school in 2014. At the beginning of 2019, the municipal government issued a decision to construct Hoang Yen Public Pre-school on the piece of church land, without any negotiations on compensation.

The church reverend, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church, and parishioners all opposed the city’s decision. According to RFA, the church opposed the decision by unfurling protest signs. Afterward, provincial police called the reverend down to the station many times to confiscate his banners and threatened to expel him from the province.

Currently, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church remains concerned about the fate of their piece of land, fearing that it will be reclaimed unconditionally and lost permanently at the end of November 2019.

6. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

Ten years after being permitted to operate, the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was recognized by the state as a religious organization on October 24th, 2019, in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was established in the south in 1972. However, after 1975, the church stopped operating after suffering government oppression; followers were forced to practice in their own homes. In 1989, the church was reinstated and operated under close government supervision. It was not until October 2009 that the government agreed to legalize the church by issuing it a permit to operate.

7. Conference held for the 2019 third quarter briefings re: the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands

On October 9th, 2019, the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs along with the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa Province organized a conference for the 2019 third quarter briefings regarding the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands. The conference brought together the home affairs offices of 17 provinces and cities.

Although it was a conference related to the administration of religion, the Internal Security Office and the Military Region 5 Command also attended.

According to Khanh Hoa radio and television, the administration of religion in the final months of 2019 will focus on: continuing the roll-out of the Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations; stepping up the check of land-use certificates for religious premises, and discovering and handling new religious phenomena that adversely affect local order and security in a timely manner.

The Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations is a directive that still has not been announced to the public. This conference reveals that the government still views unauthorized religious activities as contrary to the law, attempting to tie them to such concepts as “heresy”, “spiritual deviation”, “superstition”, and “disruption of security and order”.

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