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Human Rights Peer Review of Vietnam Spotlights Persistent Rights Violations

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From left to right, Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Tin, Nguyen Dai, three activists beaten by police in August 2018. Photo courtesy: HRW.

On 22 January 2019, Vietnam underwent for the third time a comprehensive peer review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council (a process known as Universal Periodic Review or UPR), amidst what many rights groups and observers have called the worst wave of crackdown on dissent, activism and civil society in years.

121 governments took to the floor and made close to 300 recommendations on a wide range of human rights issues. Under the rules of the UPR, Vietnam can choose to “accept” or merely “note” the recommendations it receives and must do so in writing by the time the 41st session of the Human Rights Council begins in late June 2019.

Governments have the primary responsibility to implement those recommendations that they have accepted and report progress therein in the next cycle of review.

Many of the issues raised during the third review are the subject of recommendations that Vietnam had accepted to implement or noted in the two previous UPR cycles. Critics say that Vietnam not only failed to implement them but have taken actions to the contrary.

Prior to the latest review, numerous independent civil society organizations, both inside Vietnam and internationally, submitted parallel reports to the United Nations on the non-implementation of previously accepted recommendations and the overall deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam.

Below are some highlights of recommendations clustered by several major recurring thematic issues (the number preceding each recommendation refers to the paragraph number in the draft outcome report of Vietnam’s third UPR, followed by the name of the recommending country in parentheses):

  1. Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders
  2. Restrictive Laws and Regulations
  3. Death Penalty
  4. Discrimination, Inequalities and Vulnerable Groups
  5. Fundamental Freedoms
  6. Judicial System, Fair Trials and Due Process

Phan Kim Khanh, one of the youngest political dissidents in Vietnam. Khanh is currently serving a 6-year-prison term.

Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders

6.55 Take steps to protect human rights defenders, particularly by repealing or revising the provisions of the Penal Code that make reference to the concept of national security (France)

6.145 Immediately release prisoners who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully detained and allow them to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms in Vietnam, including Ho Duc Hoa, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Tran Thi Nga, Nguyen Bac Truyen, and the members of the Brotherhood for Democracy (United States of America)

6.175 Release human rights defenders sentenced to prison for exercising the right to freedom of expression (Iceland)

6.177 Take the necessary measures to ensure the freedom of expression of human rights defenders and journalists, in particular by investigating and punishing perpetrators of threats and reprisals against them (Argentina)

6.180 Protect human rights defenders and prosecute all persons guilty of violence or intimidation against them (Luxembourg)

6.186 Review regulations impeding the operation of Civil Society Organisations, to enable a more open space and ensure that national security provisions are not used to prevent peaceful debate and dissent (Ireland)

6.191 Release all human rights defenders as well as political and religious activists detained for the peaceful expression of their political opinions or religious belief (Poland)

6.198 Adopt measures in line with international standards to guarantee freedom of association, opinion and expression, including online, and to ensure that journalists, human rights defenders and NGOs can freely operate (Italy)

6.202 Guarantee Fully freedom of speech, the rights of peaceful assembly and association as well as the safety of journalists, and review cases of persons convicted for having freely expressed their opinion, including human rights defenders (Switzerland)

6.203 Improve protection of the rights to peaceful assembly and expression by reviewing existing legislation, and publishing and implementing clear, transparent guidelines on security personnel conduct in managing peaceful demonstrations (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)

6.205 Ensure consistent implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion particularly at the local level, including with respect to registration of Protestant groups and other groups in Northwest Highlands provinces, and remove undue restrictions on access to religious materials and clergy for those imprisoned and cease any harassment of independent groups on account of their religion (United States of America)

6.211 Publicly recognize human rights defenders and provide an environment in which they can carry out their human rights work safely (Belgium)

6.214 Nurture a culture of free expression online and offline, release all imprisoned human rights defenders, including bloggers and political dissenters, and put an end to their harassment (Czechia)

6.215 Create an enabling environment for independent civil society and ensure that the prepared Law on Association facilitates the registration, work and funding of NGOs free from undue State interference and restrictions (Czechia)

6.216 Lay ground for political plurality and democracy and guarantee its citizens the full enjoyment of the rights to vote and to be elected and to take part in the conduct of public affairs (Czechia)

A policeman, flanked by local militia members, tries to stop a foreign journalist from taking pictures outside the Ho Chi Minh City people’s court, where a human rights case was taking place in August 2011. Photograph: Ian Timberlake/AFP/Getty Images

Restrictive Laws and Regulations

6.73 Adapt the Code of Penal Procedure to international standards and amend Articles 109 and 117 on “activities against the State” in the Penal Code, in line with human rights standards (Switzerland)

6.167 Repeal or amend provisions in the Penal Code and Cyber Security Law so that provisions relating to national security are clearly defined or removed, to ensure that they cannot be applied in an arbitrary manner to endanger any forms of freedom of expression, including internet freedom (Finland)

6.171 Review all convictions based on laws restricting freedom of expression and opinion, in particular articles 79 and 88 of the Penal Code, according to the revised penalty ranges (Germany)

6.174 Consider revising national legislation, including the Law on Belief and Religion and the media Laws, in order to harmonize it with international standards regarding the right of freedom of expression and of religion (Brazil)

6.183 Amend, within one year, the 2015 Penal Code, Decree 174/2013, Decree 72/2013, Decree 27/2018, the 2018 Law on cybersecurity and articles 4, 9, 14 and 15 of the 2016 Press Law, to guarantee offline and online freedom of press and expression, and the right to privacy, in line with articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Netherlands)

6.185 Related Cybersecurity Decrees should include clear provisions for interpretation of the Law on Cybersecurity according to international standards on freedom of expression (Ireland)

6.187 Ensure that the legal framework protects freedom of expression both offline and online and accordingly amend the Penal Law and Law on Cybersecurity to ensure consistency with international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (New Zealand); Ensure that freedom of expression is protected online and offline by amending national security provisions in the Penal Code, and the Cybersecurity law and its implementing decree, so as to comply with article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other commitments (Sweden); Guarantee the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and amend the penal code and the Cyber Security Law to make sure that the limitations on the right of freedom of expression are in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Austria); Review the Criminal Code and the law on cybersecurity to harmonize it with international standards related to the freedom of expression, association and assembly (Canada)

6.188 Revise the provisions of Articles 117 and 331 of the 2015 Penal Code and other relevant laws that restrict the ability to exercise fundamental freedoms and allow free operation of national and international media (Norway)

6.193 Ensure full implementation of its international human rights obligations regarding freedom of religion and belief by reviewing the Law on Belief and Religion to bring it into line with article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Poland)

6.194 Abolish prior censorship in all fields of cultural creation and other forms of expression, both online and offline, including by bringing the restriction to freedom of expression under the 2016 Press Law in line with international standards and fostering a pluralistic and independent media environment (Portugal)

6.197 Review and amend national legislations in order to enable the effective exercise of the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in line with the standards enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Seychelles)

6.212 Review the law on religion and belief to enable religious groups to practice freely (Canada);Review the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion and bring it in conformity with international human rights standards and freedom of religion or belief standards (Croatia)

Nguyen Thi Loan, mother of Ho Duy Hai. Photo credit: Nguyen Lan Thang.

Death Penalty

6.5 Accede to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aimed at abolishing the death penalty (El Salvador); Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty (Montenegro); Ratify, without reservations, the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty (Slovenia); Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty (Croatia)

6.140 Initiate a moratorium on the imposing of capital punishment and especially for non-violent crimes (Finland); Consider implementing a full moratorium on the death penalty (Georgia); Impose a moratorium on executions and abolish the death penalty (Iceland); Establish a de facto moratorium on the death penalty with a view to its abolition (Portugal); Establish a moratorium on the application of the death penalty as a step towards its definitive abolition and modify the Penal Code to reduce the number of crimes for which the capital punishment can be imposed (Spain); Impose a moratorium on executions with the goal of abolishing the death penalty (Albania); Establish a moratorium on the death penalty as a step towards complete abolition of this practice (Australia); Immediately adopt a moratorium on the death penalty with a view to ultimately abolishing it (Austria); Take the necessary measures to establish a moratorium on executions of death row prisoners as well as to repeal the death penalty from their national legislation (Argentina)

6.141 Abolish the death penalty and, without delay, reduce the number of offences punishable by the death penalty (France); Abolish definitely the death penalty and ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty (Luxembourg); Continue reform towards abolition of the death penalty, including by continuing to reduce the list of crimes punishable by the death penalty under the Penal Code 2015, in particular non-violent crimes, and by providing greater transparency about the numbers, methods and associated crimes relating to its use (New Zealand); Abolish the death penalty for all crimes, and consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty (Uruguay)

6.142 Further reduce the list of offences punishable by death, eliminate the death penalty for “activities against the people’s government”, “espionage”, “embezzlement”, and “taking bribes” as well as for serious drug offences (Germany); Continue to reduce the number of crimes subject to the death penalty and consider introducing a de facto moratorium on its application (Mexico); Continue to reduce the scope of crimes subject to the death penalty only for “most serious crimes” and consider introducing a moratorium (Norway); Continue the process of reduction of offences subject to death penalty, until the abolition of the capital punishment and to publish statistics on the use of death penalty in Vietnam (Romania); Further reduce the offences punishable by death penalty and provide official figures regarding death sentences and executions; consider to introduce a moratorium of death penalty (Italy)

6.143 Reduce further the list of crimes punishable by the death penalty, in particular economic crimes and drug-related offences, and envisage a complete moratorium on the application of the death penalty (Switzerland)

6.144 Assist the process of national discussion on death penalty with a view of its eventual abolishment (Ukraine)

6.146 Restrict the use of the death penalty to crimes that meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” under international law (Belgium)

6.290 Cease applying the death penalty for non-violent crimes, including drug offences (Australia)

6.291 Introduce a national moratorium on the death penalty, aiming at complete abolition. Until then, reduce the number of crimes subject to the death penalty, ensuring that it does not apply to offences other than the “most serious” crimes, in accordance with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Sweden)

A group of Jarai people in Vietnam’s Highlands. Photo courtesy: Thinh Nguyen.

Discrimination, Inequalities and Vulnerable Groups

6.90 Continue efforts in eliminating inequalities in access to public services (China)

6.92 Increase efforts in addressing discrimination, in line with its international obligations, and towards improving its legal framework against gender-based violence (Greece)

6.93 Enact legislation to ensure access to gender affirmation treatment and legal gender recognition (Iceland)

6.96 Continue to conduct studies with a view to amend existing or introduce new legal instruments to eliminate all forms of discrimination against people living with HIV (Malaysia)

6.97 Take further steps to ensure the protection of all vulnerable groups in society including LGBTI persons (Malta)

6.98 Legalize same-sex marriage before the next UPR (Netherlands)

6.99 Explicitly provide “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as a forbidden ground of discrimination in the revised Labour Code and other relevant laws (Norway)

6.107 Take further measures to reduce inequalities and enhance access to services especially to vulnerable persons, including women, children and disabled (Bhutan)

6.108 Review the Labour Code and the law on gender equality to include a detailed definition of sexual harassment (Canada)

6.109 Develop legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity (Chile)

6.153 Set up a robust legislative framework prohibiting and sanctioning all discriminatory practices, enabling victims access justice (Madagascar)

6.170 Take measures to combat religious motivated violence and harassment and ethnic discrimination and inequality (Brazil)

6.217 Revise the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code and criminalise all forms of violence against women, raise public awareness on gender equality and combating discrimination against women and girls, enhance efforts and measures to prevent and combat human trafficking, especially that of women and children (Hungary)

6.229 Adopt marriage equality legislation, extending full marriage rights to same-sex couples (Iceland)

6.230 Review the Law on Marriage and Family with a view to setting the same minimum age for marriage for women and men (Zambia)

6.231 Review the law on marriage and the family to guarantee the equality to same sex couples (Canada)

6.259 Step up the efforts for the participation of woman in political and public life and their representation in the decision-making bodies (Ethiopia)

6.260 Prohibit all forms of violence against women and strengthen women’s access to justice (Iceland)

6.261 Continue to strengthen measures to prevent abuse and violence against women (Japan)

6.262 Adopt a national plan of action to prevent all forms of violence against women and assign sufficient resources for its implementation (Spain)

6.263 Further invest in women’s economic empowerment and promote decent work for women in partnership with relevant international organizations (Thailand)

6.268 Implement the policy on promoting gender equality and bridging the gender gap, which focusing on enhancing the role and participation of women in the political, economic and social spheres (Cambodia)

6.284 Develop, in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, community-based and people-centred mental health services that do not lead to institutionalization and over medicalization and that respect the free and informed consent of persons with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities while combatting stigma and violence against them (Portugal)

6.288 Pursue efforts to adopt national legislation to ensure further respect of the rights of migrants, to prepare the ground for the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Egypt)

6.289 Continue its efforts on prevention and reduction of statelessness through among others reacquisition of Vietnamese nationality and prevent children statelessness (Kenya)

Protest in Ho Chi Minh City on June 10, 2018. Photo courtesy: Facebook, unknown author.

Fundamental Freedoms

6.42 Enhance efforts to comply with the recommendations accepted during the second Universal Periodic Review cycle on guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression (Chile)

6.168 Take steps to guarantee freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, including on the internet, in the context of the adoption of the law on cybersecurity (France)

6.179 Protect civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association (Luxembourg)

6.184 Restrictions on freedom of expression, and particularly online freedom, be lifted in line with Vietnam’s obligations under international law (Ireland)

6.189 Strengthen efforts to ensure the freedom of expression, including in the digital environment (Peru)

6.195 Ensure freedom of expression, including online, and promote actions to ensure freedom and independence of the media (Japan)

6.196 Continue the measures aimed at lifting all restrictions on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to allow bloggers, journalists and other internet users to promote and protect human rights (Romania)

6.199 Enhance efforts to guarantee freedom of religion or belief, also by further reducing administrative obstacles to peaceful religious activities and by combating violence and discrimination on religious grounds (Italy)

6.200 Adopt legislative changes to guarantee the protection and free exercise of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly (Spain)

6.206 Take the necessary measures to eliminate administrative barriers in order to guarantee exercise of freedom of worship (Angola)

6.207 Enact laws to provide for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Australia)

6.209 Take further steps to ensure an independent and pluralistic media landscape, including by reducing political influence on media outlets (Austria)

6.210 Safeguard freedom of religion and believe for all in Vietnam (Kenya)

6.213 Increase and ensure Vietnamese citizens’ access to information, including by increasing radio and television coverage in all parts of the country (Cyprus)

6.236 Allow for the establishment of independent trade unions and to recognize their right to organise (Canada)

Four death-row inmates from left to right, Ho Duy Hai, Le Van Manh, Nguyen Van Chuong, Dang Van Hien. Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa.

Judicial System, Fair Trials and Due Process

6.147 Ensure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible in trial in keeping with Viet Nam’s obligations under the Convention against Torture (New Zealand)

6.148 Take steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention and punish the perpetrators (Togo)

6.150 Abolish immediately at all levels the exercise of outdoor trials to ensure the right to the presumption of innocence, effective legal representation and fair trials (Denmark)

6.152 Revise the judicial system to provide a safer environment to victims in case of all crimes (Hungary)

6.156 Pursue judicial and institutional reforms to bring them into line with international human rights standards (Senegal)

6.158 Ensure that fair trial guarantees and due process rights, as provided in international law and standards, are respected and upheld in all cases (Slovakia)

6.164 Amend the Criminal Procedural Code so that persons are represented by a lawyer immediately following their arrest and to guarantee their right to a fair trial (Canada)

About the Author

Shiwei Ye is an Asia-based independent human rights analyst, strategy advisor, trainer, and civil society consultant.

Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – August 2019

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Focus:

  • The Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist sect objected to the plan to change the original tiles of its An Hoa Tu Pavilion of Ancestral Worship.
  • The first observance of the International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief has demonstrated that many independent religious sects in Vietnam practice their religions inside their homes. 
  • Vietnam began a Human Rights Dialogue with Australia on August 29, 2019, in Canberra.
  • Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc met with leaders of government-approved religious institutions to guide, propagandize, and manage religious practice to be in accordance with the state authorities.

Changes in the law regarding religious practices

The government did not propose any new legal changes to religious practice in Vietnam this month.

Events that stood out during the month of August

Events by religious institutions

1. At the beginning of August 2019, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist sect – a religious organization that is not recognized by the Vietnamese government – objected to a plan to replace the original tiles of the An Hoa Tu Pavilion of Ancestral Worship. The tile replacement plan was proposed and was to be carried out by the government-approved Central Executive Committee of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Organization. 

An Hoa Tu is a pavilion of ancestral worship, a common house for all Hoa Hao Buddhists, and where they organize all of their devotions. An Hoa Tu was built in the early years of the 20th century and founder Huynh Phu So selected it to be the center of the Hoa Hao sect. Therefore, it is a temple consisting of many spiritual beliefs. Its pillars, its tiles, or even just a tree, can carry a special meaning for the Hoa Hao Buddhists. The religious teaching of the Hoa Hao also encourages prudence in building temples and worshipping practices. It is why the replacement plan of the tiles has caused the Hoa Hao Buddhists to worry that this may go against the religious sect’s tenets and the teaching of their founder. 

The Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist sect is an independent religious organization. Its members often are harassed by the local authorities because their religion is practiced independent of the state. These members are not allowed to organize their worshipping ceremonies publicly according to the traditions of their religion because the state only allows the Central Executive Committee of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Organization to have the right to organize such activities. The conflict between the two institutions has lingered for many years.

2. On August 22, 2019, many religious groups solely organized their observance ceremonies for the International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. We have not received any reports that the state interfered with these ceremonies. The Cao Dai, Buddhists, Hoa Hao Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants all proceeded with their ceremonies on private lands and not at their public places of worship. This event strongly demonstrated that many religious groups could not register their activities officially and so could only practice their religions on private premises. For example, regarding the Hoa Hao Buddhists, the state only recognizes the Central Executive Committee of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Organization. If the Hoa Hao Buddhists organize any ceremonies with people gathering, they would be deemed to have violated the law. 

There are also no reports of government-recognized and registered religious organizations that have organized to observe this day.

State events

1. On August 9, 2019, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and senior officials met with 126 religious leaders from all the government-approved religious institutions in Danang City. This meeting was held to promote the state’s management and propaganda among the leaders of these religious organizations. 

According to the People’s Daily newspaper, Nguyen Xuan Phuc acknowledged that Vietnam leads the world in religious equality because it is a country that does not have ethnic or religious intolerance.

According to the government’s electronic gateway, the prime minister has alleged that there have been situations where people have abused religious freedom for the purpose of engaging in national separationism, and to complicate security, social order, and to affect Vietnam’s reputation. Nguyen Xuan Phuc declared two extreme points to guide religious practice in the country:

  •  All religions must join with the government, follow the laws, and resolve all conflicts with openness and goodwill along with the authorities.
  • All religious leaders and their members must  be loyal to the great ethnic unity of the state, and refuse to be used by civil society groups that have activities related to “democracy, human rights, and religious freedom.”

2. On August 29, 2019, Australia proceeded with the Human Rights Dialog with Vietnam in its capital in Canberra. It was the 16th dialogue between the two countries. In the previous dialogue, Australia expressed its concerns to Vietnamese authorities about the limitations on civic space for civil society organizations, limits on civil and political rights, and the increase in harassment, arrests, and the detention of human rights activists.

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Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – July 2019

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Introduction to the first report

Dear Readers:

Religion and beliefs play an essential part in everyone’s life. There are people who practice their faith by going to a church, a temple, or just praying in their own homes. This colorful picture of religious practice is actively ongoing with many different patterns.

Religious institutions also play a role in the background of a country’s civil society. Before 1975, there were many religious institutions maintaining schools, hospitals, charity organizations, and more in the south of Vietnam. Throughout Vietnam’s history, religious institutions have played a significant role in the life of our people.

However, after the war ended in 1975, and the country was united into one, freedom of religion in Vietnam became lamentable. While the government has begun to recognize the polychromy of religions, at the same time, severe violations of freedom of religion continue to happen in Vietnam.

Because of the issues mentioned above, The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa magazines wish to share with our readers news about the freedom of religion in Vietnam through our monthly newsletter. You are reading the first update on this topic. 

Starting from July 2019, we began doing monthly updates on the situation of religion in Vietnam via a newsletter in Vietnamese published by Luat Khoa and with an English version appearing on The Vietnamese web site.

We sincerely hope to receive your feedback regarding improving our upcoming newsletters via the email address editor@thevietnamese.org

 The focus of the July 2019 Report:

  • Ho Chi Minh City authorities attempted to force make the Thu Thiem Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross and Thu Thiem Church donate their lands for a road-building project along the Saigon River.
  • Two activists from Vietnam who focus on freedom of religion met with US President Donald Trump in mid-July 2019 to share information regarding violations of religious freedom in Vietnam in conjunction with a meeting with victims of religious persecution around the world.
  • Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs alleged that the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report was not objective because it relied on what it termed biased evidence.
  • Many baptized Vietnamese Montagnards living in Thailand seeking asylum were arrested and detained by Thai police this year, including women, on charges of illegal residence.

Changes in the law regarding religious practices

There were no legal changes regarding the issue of religion in Vietnam in July 2019. We will soon share with our readers the statutory regulations and how they affect freedom of religion in Vietnam.

Events that stood out during the month of July

Events by religious institutions

On July 17, 2019, together with many international victims who suffered violations of their freedom of religion, two activists from Vietnam – Luong Xuan Duong from Cao Dai Buddhism and Protestant minister A Ga – met with US President Donald Trump. They presented the US   president with details regarding the current situation of freedom of religion in Vietnam. Both Mr. Duong and Minister A Ga were being sponsored for political asylum in the United States and faced danger while advocating for religious freedom in Vietnam. This meeting took place at the second  US Ministerial Meeting to Advance Religious Freedom, which was attended by more than 100 foreign ministers and victims of religious persecution from around the world.

At the beginning of July 2019, a Luat Khoa journalist visited Vietnam’s Protestant Montagnards who fled their homes in the Central Highlands to seek asylum in Bangkok, Thailand. As of now, there are approximately 500 Montagnards who have sought refuge in Bangkok. After the arrest and detention of 133 Montagnards in August 2018, the community believed that the Thai authorities were still holding their relatives for illegal residence in the country. The Montagnards said that they had to flee from Vietnam because the authorities harassed, abused, and imprisoned them for their Protestant beliefs.

State events

On July 4, 2019, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised its objection to the International Religious Freedom Report that the US Department of State published. This report contains allegations that the current state of religious freedom in Vietnam is just as miserable as in previous years. It also raises the case of six members of Hoa Hao Buddhism being harassed by local authorities, the persecution of Protestants in the Central Highlands, as well as individual members of religious institutions that the local authorities have not allowed to practice their religion. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the US Department of State received incorrect information and so was unable  to objectively judge freedom of religion in Vietnam. Le Thi Thu Hang, spokesperson for MFA, said that Vietnam would cooperate and that it would enter into a dialogue with the US regarding freedom of religion in the country.

According to Thanh Nien newspaper, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee has decided to join with the People’s Committee of the Second District to sternly advocate the Church of Thu Thiem and the Thu Thiem Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross turn over their lands to be used in a project to build roads along the banks of the Saigon River, which is the site of the Thu Thiem New City project.

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Death Penalty

Wrongful Death Penalty Cases And The Families That The Inmates Left Behind

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Death row inmates Ho Duy Hai, Le Van Manh, Nguyen Van Chuong. Photo credits: Luat Khoa magazine

Mrs. Loan began to cry softly as she spoke to me one afternoon in late March, when I called to ask if there were any updates on her son Ho Duy Hai, who is sitting on death row in Long An province on a wrongful conviction.

“He is so young, and yet already has suffered over a decade of imprisonment,” she told me over the phone. “I want him to come back home and live a normal life. I want him to get married, and have a child. Sometimes, I just really wish to have a paternal grandchild and that both of my children could live with me like in those happy days before.”

I have been in contact with the Hai family for the past four years, since I first joined the community of Vietnamese bloggers and activists calling for the suspension of Hai’s execution in December 2014, after then President Truong Tan Sang issued an order to stop his execution. It was  then that I began studying his case a bit more and learned that the evidence submitted for his conviction was invalid, and quite frankly, illegal. 

For example, the local authorities wanted to ensure Hai was found guilty and so they purchased a knife at a market and marked it as “similar” to the weapon that they alleged Hai had used in committing the robbery and murder of two women. And with such “evidence,” Hai was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008, when he was a recent college graduate, and just 23-years-old. 

Throughout these years, I have also gotten closer to two more families of Vietnamese who have been handed wrongful death penalties. Those include the families of Nguyen Van Chuong and Le Van Manh. These two men also were convicted and sentenced to death in their 20s with no evidence and following alleged torture by police officers. These three groups of parents meet every month in Hanoi and go together to petition the government to overturn the wrongful conviction of their sons. Each month, if they saved enough money to buy supplies, they will also visit their sons in prison. All of the men were convicted and have been kept behind bars for more than a decade.

Yet, visiting their sons is not quite an easy task because of the financial strain on these families. The words of Le Van Manh’s mother – Mrs. Viet – broke my heart during our most recent telephone call, also in March this year. “If I manage to earn enough money, then I will go to see my son, but making money to support my family is quite difficult given my age,” she told me. “So for some months, I have not been able to see Manh.” 

My colleague based in Vietnam told me that catching fish and other aquatic creatures at the river near Mrs. Viet’s house was the main source of her income. Yet, her determination to fight against his unjust conviction has been so powerful. 

I asked her if she was able to talk about his case when she visited him in jail. “The officers don’t like me to talk about it, but I tell Manh anyways,” she said. “Manh needs hope and the information that people have not forgotten him and are fighting for him gives him hope.”

Mr. Chinh, Nguyen Van Chuong’s father, also has the same fighting spirit. He sends me documents and updates me on Facebook about his son’s case. This year, Mr. Chinh shared with me that the Supreme People’s Procuracy Office in Hanoi contacted him and invited him to go see them. The office told Mr. Chinh that they had sent a request for a trial for cassation in Nguyen Van Chuong’s case. However, the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam denied such a request without giving any apparent reason. The Procuracy Office used that excuse and the denial to tell Mr. Chinh to stop contacting them. However, that was not a legally sound argument. First, the office recognized that the case needed to be reviewed. Second, the law allows the office to continue sending their request, even after the denial. In fact, the Procuracy Office should continue to submit their requests for Nguyen Van Chuong and not tell his father to forget about the case.

The cost for discussing the details of their cases with their family members during visitations has been quite severe for Nguyen Van Chuong and Le Van Manh. Both of them claimed that they were shackled 24 hours a day a few times. Nguyen Van Chuong’s father also told me that Chuong was being beaten up by other inmates in his prison and being forced to sign a letter for the local authorities confessing to the murder he was convicted of. Yet, the families and the inmates did not yield in front of these pressures and they kept on petitioning for a review of their cases.

Different than Ho Duy Hai, both Chuong and Manh already had children before their conviction. But their wives could not withstand the pressure of having a spouse that was given a death penalty conviction and so they left their children to be raised by Chuong’s and Manh’s parents. The responsibility to raise the children while still trying to exonerate the two men greatly added to the burden of the two families, who are already straining to survive. The grandparents are elderly and cannot find jobs that provide a fair and reasonable income. But at the same time, they have to provide support for a lot of people in their families. 

In Vietnam, there is no organization that really focuses on the issue of the anti-death penalty or that assists people with wrongful convictions. And even though I work on this issue, my non-profit organization is not recognized by the Vietnamese government and our work is classified as “reactionary” conduct. More than that, none of the death row inmates would be allowed visitations by an organization or non-family persons, not even the International Committee of the Red Cross. The inmates are shut off from society entirely and can not have any contact with  people and organizations that care about their cases. In fact, visitations by independent organizations working on behalf of inmates, including those sitting on death row, was a request made by the Committee Against Torture  in its concluding observations for Vietnam in 2018.

As the person who has brought these three cases before the different international law reviews, such as the Committee Against Torture and the Universal Periodic Review of Vietnam, where specific inquiries were asked about them, it is very frustrating for me that international law – such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – had not been used for the benefit of the wrongfully-accused inmates. The Human Rights Committee (a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR) sadly acknowledged the fact that the covenant could not actually be implemented by the people of Vietnam in its third periodic report on Vietnam early in 2019. 

The families of Hai, Chuong, and Manh don’t really have support from the public or civil society organizations that operate in Vietnam. They are almost alone during their monthly petitioning to the authorities in Hanoi. They need to find some financial resources to buy supplies to visit their sons each month. More than that, no one actually assists them with funds to buy paper and pay postage fees to send their monthly petitions. And yet, none of the parents will call for financial support from the public for their families when I spoke to them. Instead, they all told me that they just want a review of the cases in an independent court of law. 

Their determination and belief in justice and rule of law always encourages and inspires me to continue to bring their cases to more people, which I will do until the day that these cases are  fairly reviewed and rightfully settled.

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