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State-Owned Media Features Police Brutality With Neutral Headline, Sparks Debate

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Screen captions of abuse from victim's video clip. Source: Facebook.

Yesterday evening, January 29, 2019, Facebookers in Vietnam were circulating a video clip showing a gentleman lying on the ground while another, older man in police uniform was stomping on him, hitting him on the face, head and chest area.

By the afternoon of January 30, 30219, the story got featured on Tuoi Tre online – one of the largest newspapers in Vietnam. It was one of the rarer times where one could find stories of police’s misconducts featured quickly on state-owned news right after making waves on social media.

While Tuoi Tre was able to confirm the story and interviewed a supervisor of the police officers involved in the incident, many netizens became very critical of its headline which states: “Temporary Suspension of Deputy Ward Police Officer Using Feet to ‘Take Action’ on Witness.”

The criticisms targeted the headline for de-escalating an incident of police brutality into something a lot less severe by using vague and ambiguous language like “take action.”

The term “take action” was actually used by the Head of Tuy Hoa Police Department, Nguyen Van Dung, in his interview with Tuoi Tre regarding the incident.

Some freelance journalists believed that Tuoi Tre practiced too much self-censorship and that in this situation, they could have used the word “stomp” and would not face any disciplinary action from the Central Committee of Propaganda. Later in the day, another online newspaper, Phap Luat of Ho Chi Minh City also published the same story and used the word “stomp” in the headline.

Tuoi Tre was slammed with an order to pay a total fine of VND220 million (close to USD10,000) in July 2018 along with a 90 days suspension.

Back then, the government issued such order after finding that Tuoi Tre had reported news that was “untrue” and causing “severe impacts” when it published an inaccurate story about the late President Tran Dai Quang’s comment on the Law on Demonstration and failed to remove a “nationally divisive” comment left by a reader on another article.

However, with this story, some readers did come to the defense of Tuoi Tre, stating that it was a clever way of playing with words to get the people’s attention. Also, it should be okay for Tuoi Tre to quote a word used by a person they have interviewed.

To these people, what more important was the fact that Tuoi Tre dared to swiftly report the incident at length, letting the victim provided a detailed description of the events.

The victim in the incident was Le Huu Quoc, a resident of Phu Thanh Ward, Tuy Hoa City, Phu Yen Province. Quoc was a witness in an altercation between two other men.

According to Quoc, he and another person were trying to break up the fight of two others, and the local police have asked all of them to come to the station.

At the police station of the local ward, Quoc was physically assaulted – as seen in the video clip – by the deputy chief Huynh Minh Le.

Quoc told Tuoi Tre that when he was at the police station, officer Le started yelling at him, strangled his neck, pushed him to the ground and used his feet to stomp on Quoc. Another officer came and stopped Le.

After Quoc came home from the station, the police officers – who were fully armed – also arrived at his house later that night, asking him to go back and provide more statement. Quoc refused because he was scared from the treatment he received earlier.

Quoc said: “I was only a witness, but they had to call a fully armed police force to come and get me like a criminal, causing damage to my reputation. Further, I already came to the station earlier and got beaten up by the deputy chief so I would not go again.”

Confirming with Tuoi Tre, the Head of Tuy Hoa City Police Department, Nguyen Van Dung, acknowledged the incident and informed the public that the involved officer had been put on leave.

Vietnam faced increasing public complaints regarding police brutality in recent years. After its first review under UN’s Convention Against Torture in 2018, the government is due to elucidate about five individual cases of death while in police custody by December 7, 2019.

The debate about Tuoi Tre’s decision to publish the story and its use of certain language for its headline could be continued in the days to come regarding the practice of state’s censorship and self-censorship.

In the meanwhile, the fact that the story of Le Huu Quoc quickly made the headlines shows the inconvenient truth about police brutality in Vietnam: it continues to happen around the country at an alarming rate, causing detrimental effects on the people and society as a whole.

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New Visa Rules Make It Easier for Foreigners to Work, Invest in Vietnam’s Coastal Economic Zones

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On November 25, the National Assembly (NA) of Vietnam passed amendments to its Law on Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners that would allow visa-free entry into coastal economic zones, as well as enable visa status changes from inside the country. The amendments were approved with 83.6% of the vote and go into effect July 1, 2020.

The amendments stipulate that in order for a coastal economic zone to quality for the visa-free exemption, it must be separate from the mainland, possess clearly defined territory and boundaries, have an international airport, and must not compromise national security or national defense.

Of note in the amendments is the alternate phrasing “special administrative-economic unit” used to refer to areas affected by the new law. The phrase “special economic zone” (SEZ) is considered sensitive after nationwide protests broke out in June of 2018, in opposition to a Special Economic Zones (SEZ) law that was being considered before the NA. The law would have established SEZs in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc, but widespread concern that the SEZs would be overrun by Chinese investors prompted the NA to shelve the law.  

Some Vietnamese have noted that Van Don and Phu Quoc of the previously-shelved SEZ law both qualify for visa-free entry under the new amendments, sparking concerns that the government is attempting to circumvent popular opposition. Representatives of the NA themselves have expressed concerns that opening up these areas to visa-free travel may pose a national security threat and have requested greater government regulation.

But Vo Trong Viet, chairman of the NA Committee on National Defense and Security, has argued that “the amendments would make it easier for foreigners to stay in Vietnam to learn about the market, and look for jobs and investment opportunities without wasting time and money on immigration procedures.”

Also included in the amendment is a stipulation allowing foreigners to change or renew their visa status while inside Vietnam, instead of having to leave the country entirely, as was previous practice. The amendment allows for visa changes by individuals in specific circumstances: “visitors who can prove they are investors or representatives of foreign organizations that make legal investments in Vietnam” and their family members, as well as foreign workers who receive job offers or enter with e-visas (provided they have the requisite work permit or work permit exemption).

Vietnam’s National Assembly, elected in 2016 and currently in its 14th session, consists of 496 members, 475 of which belong to the Communist Party (the remaining 21 are independents). Though largely considered a “rubber stamp” parliament due to a lack of public consultation and debate, discussions over pieces of legislation have increased in recent years, and the NA has begun to assume a larger political role in the eyes of the public. The NA meets twice a year to formally ratify laws, with individual members serving five-year terms.

Elections for the 15th session of the NA are set to take place in 2021.

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Freedom of expression

In Prolific Day, Vietnam Sentences Six Dissidents to Prison for “Anti-state” Activities

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Nguyen Chi Vung (top), Pham Van Diep (middle), Vo Thuong Trung, Doan Viet Hoan, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue (bottom, left to right) . Photo sources: Kien Thuc, Binh An, and Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, respectively. Composite photo created by Will Nguyen.


In a particularly damaging day for Vietnamese dissidents, six individuals were sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison for opposing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The convictions on November 26, 2019 bookend an active month for Vietnamese security forces, who have arrested and convicted numerous individuals for their on- and offline “anti-state” activities. 

Nguyen Chi Vung, 38, was sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the southern Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Vung was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code for “Making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and articles against the SRV”. According to Reuters, Vung had “held 33 livestream sessions on Facebook ‘to share distorted information’ and ‘encourage people to participate in protests during national holidays’”.

Pham Van Diep, 54, was convicted under the same article, with a north-central Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa sentencing him to nine years in prison and five years probation. His indictment stated that he had a nine-year history of expressing online dissent and that he made frequent Facebook posts criticizing the VCP leadership and SRV policies. According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, he had previously printed and distributed anti-SRV flyers in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. On June 28, 2016, Diep was arrested by Laotian authorities, tried in February of 2018, and sentenced to 21 months in prison for “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries”. Lao authorities took him to the Vietnamese border one month after his trial, where he was allowed to re-enter Vietnam.

In Dong Nai, a province bordering the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, four individuals were convicted under Article 118 for “Disruption of security”. According to Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders, “[t]he four convicted were arrested on April 25, 2019, for their intention to participate in a peaceful demonstration scheduled on April 30 to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime”. Vo Thuong Trung, 42, and Doan Viet Hoan, 35, were each sentenced to three years in prison, while Ngo Xuan Thanh, 49, and Nguyen Dinh Khue, 41, each received 28 months.

The convictions of these six individuals in one day comes a little over a week after 43-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years house arrest for violating Article 117. According to his lawyers, a Facebook account making anti-SRV posts used the same name as their client. However, they said the account did not, in fact, belong to him. Tinh was arrested May 29, 2019 and convicted on November 16 in the north-central province of Nghe An.

Last week also saw the high-profile arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a journalist with a doctorate in economics, and a founding chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Dung, 53, is a former VCP member and is known for his incisive political and economic critiques of both the VCP and SRV. He has written for Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia, NBC News, Nguoi Viet, and Asian Nikkei Review.

Dung’s arrest has been noted by the European Union and condemned by Reporters Without Borders, who hailed him as “an outspoken Vietnamese journalist and leading press freedom defender who for years has been trying to help create an open and informed civil society in Vietnam that is not controlled by its Communist Party.” He is currently being held at the Phan Dang Luu Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City, one of two centers in the city where political dissidents are usually held while they are being investigated (the other being Chi Hoa Prison). He faces up to 12 years behind bars.

Although freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the SRV is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It routinely arrests and convicts activists under Articles 117 and 118 of the penal code, as well as Article 331, which cites  “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. Such broadly defined articles are regularly used as a catch-all to target citizens who criticize the VCP or demand political reform. The SRV has long claimed that it does not jail prisoners of conscience, only individuals who violate the law. Human rights groups say the two are not mutually exclusive.

Addendum: On November 28, 2019, two more individuals in Dong Nai were convicted under Article 117. Huynh Minh Tam, 41, and his sister Huynh Thi To Nga, 36, were sentenced to nine and five years of prison, respectively, for making Facebook posts critical of the SRV.


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Press Release

The Vietnamese: On Our Second Anniversary

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On November 8, 2017, the editorial board of The Vietnamese launched our website with only one purpose: to bring more information on human rights and the political situation in Vietnam to the international audience.

Two years ago, we realized that foreigners don’t really understand Vietnam and that that they don’t know what Vietnam’s politics are really like. They may not know that the sunny and relaxed place of tourism in the tropics has been controlled by a single political party for more than seven decades in the North and for more than 40 years in the whole of the country. The Vietnamese people live under an authoritarian state and so have no free and fair elections. They do not elect any of the leaders of their country because those leaders are selected behind closed doors by the Vietnamese Communist Party. Vietnam’s government is the type of regime that the Umbrella Movement was trying to avoid for Hong Kong people in 2014 when protests broke out.

As democracy activists, it has been a bit mind-boggling for us to see the world wholeheartedly support the rights of the people of  Hong Kong but while just giving a pass to us Vietnamese – a people who also believe in democracy – who continue to suffer under an authoritarian regime.

It was then that we decided that we needed to write in English about Vietnam. We felt a need to bring the stories and the lives of those who suffer when their human rights are being violated by the state and to make these stories more widely seen within international communities.

For two years, we have been working mostly voluntarily to bring forward our magazine’s objectives. More importantly, we have brought out the stories of our people and our human rights activists to the world. It has been two years with not a lot of financial support, but it was also two years in which we received tremendous human resources for free. We know that we are heading in the right direction when more people reach out and try to work with us when we have no means to pay them. We believe that they are happy to contribute because they understand that the world needs to hear our voices. The good news is that in 2019, we were successful in raising enough funds to pay for our freelancers and we hope that more writers will join us since we issued our call for more pitches one month ago.

We thank you, our readers, for your support and belief in us. We thank you and call on writers to walk with us and realize our goal to be a platform to advocate for each and every Vietnamese individual’s human rights and democracy. We call on all of you to share and raise your voices for our dreams, our visions, and to support our daily struggle for Vietnam to become a democratic country where the rule of law and human rights are respected.

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