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Vietnam Rings In 2019 with More Restrictions on Citizens’ Freedoms

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During the last week of December 2018, Vietnam’s state-owned newspapers flooded the country’s social media with articles on rules and tips for writing and blogging in a new era of internet usage, all in preparation for the 2018 Cybersecurity Law taking effect on New Year’s Day.

In the days leading to the country’s cyber D-day, on December 30, 2018, with the headlines “How to Write to Express your Political Opinion on the Internet without Violating the Law?” Tuoi Tre online newspaper essentially summarized the ultimate paradox for people living under one of the most repressive countries around the world.

While the article elicits opinions from a wide range of interviewees, from intellects and heads of certain IT firms to regular social media users, they all repeat the same government’s mantra: practice self-censorship and avoid criticism of the Party and the state, so that you can have the right to express yourself.

Like the headlines itself, the “opinion” of the group of people interviewed in this article seems to be blissfully ignorant of the international standards for freedom of expression, in particular, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, where a government not only cannot criminalize people for stating their political opinions but is also not allowed to censor them.

It is not surprising that the article of Tuoi Tre did not consider critical opinions of the government to be worthy of political opinions and instead endorsed the same old government’s propaganda which had been recycled throughout the past seven decades, that one could have an opinion about anything in Vietnam, except those that criticize the Party and the government. After all, all newspapers in the country are considered to be the arms and legs of that propaganda machine.

Another leading newspaper in Vietnam, Thanh Nien, also published an article on December 29, 2018, warning people to steer clear of “The 14 Ways to Violate the New Cybersecurity Law” with the first paragraph declaring the use of social media “to gather and call on other people to incite disorder” among the prohibited acts. The language of this paragraph is nothing new; it is the same as Decree 38 which has been used for regulating public gatherings in Vietnam, an ordinance that legal experts in the country have repeatedly questioned its constitutionality since its issuance in 2005.

Praising the accomplishments of the Party and the state, as well as reciting their propaganda, are not only welcome but also considered to be parts of the Vietnamese journalists’ obligations according to the “Code of Conduct” published by the Vietnamese Journalists Association (VJA).

The VJA, however, is an organization formed by the government according to its Media and Press Law of 2016 (link in Vietnamese), and these obligations are statutory. The Vietnamese authorities may think that by legislating journalists’ conducts, it would give them the appearance of a society that respects the rule of law. However, in reality, perhaps the only thing such laws could further demonstrate would probably be the systematic abuse of press freedom in the country.

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese government is now ready to roll out the “code of model behaviors” for people who use social media in the new year, and the VJA has taken an extra step this past week with the announcement of its “Eight Rules for Journalists to Behave on Social Media” on December 25, 2018.

Among others, most notably is the requirement that journalists are not to “post any news, articles, pictures, or audio recordings on social media or repost speech and opinions in opposition to the way, policy, and guideline of the Party or the State.”

Not stopping at that, the new rules for journalists according to the VJA also require that while online, they are not going to “comment, give an opinion or share any information which contains the purpose of inciting or engaging others to react negatively, as well as those issues that are political, economic, cultural, societal, relating to defense security, and external affairs,…with complexity and sensitivity which need consensus as well as positive and constructive observation and behaviors for society”.

Effectively, the new arbitrarily worded regulations for journalists, when being applied together with the new cybersecurity bill, could mean that the sharing of any information considered to be critical of a proposed law, such as the still pending draft bill on the Special Economic Zones which ignited the nationwide protests in June 2018 for example, may be deemed illegal and criminal by the government starting in 2019.

At the same time, state-owned media in Vietnam also welcomed the news of the CP-TPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) taking effect at the end of December 2018. In the new year, Vietnam continues to push for the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement to be ratified by the EU Parliament in March 2019. Both of these trade agreements demand serious improvement on the human rights situation in Vietnam, directly and indirectly.

However, in 2018, The 88 Project reported:

– Vietnam arrested 103 people (up from 43 in 2017)
– 120 activists were tried
– At least 22 of those who tried were females
– 35 had known religious affiliations
– 11 were sentenced to between 10 and 14 years
– Two received the sentence of between 15 and 19 years
– One person, Le Dinh Luong, was sentenced to 20 years

In total, 210 people are serving jail sentences for their peaceful activism in Vietnam with 19 more await trial.

Whether the Vietnamese government will yield to international pressure and improve its human rights records, or follows through and starts enforcing the new suppressive law on bloggers and journalists in 2019, the message from the activists’ community is unanimous: they will continue to write and express their opinions regardless. Before the Cybersecurity Law of 2018, Vietnam already has enough penal codes to send their political dissidents to prison for a long time.

Human Rights

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

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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

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

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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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