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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.

Freedom of expression

Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“I have lost my license to practice law forever, with no apparent recourse available,” Vo An Don, one of Vietnam’s most well-known lawyers in recent years, lamented on Facebook on April 9, 2019. Last week, a high court in Danang ruled that the minister of justice’s decision to affirm his disbarment in 2018 remained effective and final.

The 42-year-old lawyer from Phu Yen province, however, is widely recognized for his fierce advocacy. In the past five years, Don took on cases involving some of the more popular political dissidents, such as blogger Mother Mushroom. But he gained the most public attention when he represented the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu,  a man who died while in custody after being beaten by the police in 2014. Don had demonstrated tireless efforts in bringing those who committed police brutality to justice in Kieu’s case. Yet on November 26, 2017, he was disciplined by his provincial bar association, and his bar license was taken away. In April 2019, the People’s High Court in Danang sided with the disciplinary decision and let the decision stayed.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, the reason for the disciplinary action was because of Don’s “abuse of democratic freedoms to write and to give interviews to foreign press and broadcasters to defame lawyers, the prosecutorial bodies, the (Communist) Party and the State of Vietnam with the intent to incite, propagandize, and misrepresent the truth which had negatively affected the reputation of the Party, the State, the prosecutorial bodies, and other Vietnamese lawyers.”

The Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association’s decision to disbar him came only a few days before the appeal trial of Mother Mushroom, which was on November 30, 2017. Don stated at the time in an interview with BBC-Vietnamese that such a decision was probably politically motivated.

It was not the first time, however, that his local bar association had attempted to discipline Vo An Don. In another interview with RFA in 2014, Don already disclosed that the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association had tried, unsuccessfully, to disbar him a few times during his representation of the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu. But Don was unfazed and continued with the case, successfully bringing the offending officers to justice.

The case of Ngo Thanh Kieu was probably the first one in recent years where the court convicted a group of police officers for causing death to a suspect in custody. Public opinion, however, was split about the sentences handed down to the former police. Some people thought that the jail terms were too light as the longest one was only a five-year-imprisonment. At the same time, many people also saw Vo An Don as the lawyer who fought for the people’s rights and stood against what they perceived as a corrupt system.

The unintended popularity could be the root of the troubles that later followed the lawyer, who practiced law in one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. Don is often dubbed the “farmer lawyer” in social media because he still has to continue farming to support his family. Practicing law in an honest way, he said, cost him opportunities to “get rich” because he refused to be part of the widespread corruption in Vietnam’s judiciary. His popularity and his candid words about the profession together made him an unpopular person among his fellow attorneys. His allegation of corruption among lawyers was one of the statements that cost him his bar license, as reported by The Law newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City on May 24, 2018.

After the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association issued its disciplinary decision on November 26, 2017, Vo An Don petitioned the Vietnam Bar Federation in December 2017 for a review.  Over 100 Vietnamese lawyers signed a petition asking the Federation to stand by its member’s freedom of expression and stated that the disciplinary action would be a dangerous precedent for the law profession. The Federation still rejected his petition on May 21, 2018.

Don continued to appeal his case with the Ministry of Justice later last year, but the minister of justice also decided against him.

Finally, in December 2018, Don initiated a lawsuit against the administrative decision to uphold the disciplinary action by the minister of justice. But as stated, the court system also did not side with him and effectively allowed the disbarment to remain in effect. The high court in Danang agreed that the dismissal of Don’s case by a lower court was proper.

Both courts had reasoned that the minister of justice’s decision to uphold the disbarment was done within a professional and social organization – the Vietnam Bar Federation. Such a decision did not fall under the categories of subject matters that could be decided in a lawsuit against an administrative order.

At this time, even Vo An Don does not seem to think that there could be any other recourse for him. In the meantime, Don’s case has raised sufficient concerns about the freedom of expression of lawyers in Vietnam and whether their human rights will continue to be subjected to professional disciplinary actions.

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Online Campaign “If not NOW then WHEN?” Seeks To Stop Sexual Abuse In Vietnam

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Vietnamese Facebookers supported the "If not NOW then WHEN?" campaign. Photo Credits: Facebook Ngoc Diep.

An uncommonly successful online campaign is happening in Vietnam with thousands of signatures and with momentum is still going strong. The campaign – “If not NOW then WHEN?” – initiated by seven civil society groups and organizations on Change.org, is the Vietnamese people’s latest and loudest response to a series of highly publicized cases of sexual abuse and violence against women and children uncovered recently in the country.

In addition to signing this petition, hundreds of Facebookers also changed their avatars to include a frame with the slogan “If not NOW then WHEN?” and the hashtag #nhanpham200k (dignity200k) to promote this campaign.

The “200k” hashtag refers to the 200,000 VND amount that the Hanoi police has fined the perpetrator in a recent sexual assault case in March 2019. Although the perpetrator was captured on an elevator’s security cameras while assaulting a woman by kissing her on the mouth, the authorities decided to treat the case as an administrative violation and did not file charges against him. Such a decision has angered the entire nation that has watched the story where his criminal actions unfold on social media, leading some activists and organizations to decide to take action.

The “If not NOW then WHEN?” campaign was launched within a few days after the administrative fine of 200,000 VND was made public. And because the organizers want to stress that a person’s dignity is worth more than the 200,000 VND fine, they have included the hashtag #nhanpham200.

Citing loopholes in the law which allow for unjust decisions such as the 200,000 VND case, the campaign calls on citizens to demand Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan and other members of Vietnam’s National Assembly to take action and change the laws. Their goal is to appeal to the legislative branch to make changes in the Penal Code so that it would be more effective in both punishing the perpetrators in sexual harassment and sexual violence cases and preventing future sexual crimes.

According to Facebooker Ngoc Diep, one of the first activists who has initiated this campaign, the campaigners will collect signatures until early May 2019. Then, they will send them directly to the National Assembly before the beginning of their next congressional meeting – which is expected to commence on May 20, 2019.

By April 9, 2019, more than 13,000 people have signed the petition even though Change.org recently has been blocked in a few areas in Vietnam. It means that those who have signed the petition from Vietnam must take an extra step, which is to get over the firewall before they can add their names to the petition.

It also means that the demands contained within the petition are of great concern for a lot of Vietnamese people.

Why is there such a tremendous response from the public to this petition that led to so many people taking the time and making an effort to make a point about this issue?

Ngoc Diep explained that the campaign has identified with the people’s realization that there are loopholes in the law, which renders the system ineffective in bringing justice to the victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the country.

Recently, several cases of sexual attacks on women and children have caused outrage in society, and yet the legal system was unable to bring the perpetrator to justice. The case in the elevator with the 200,000 VND fine was just one of many such cases.

In another case, a teacher was accused of inappropriately touching his fifth-grade students, but the authorities claimed that his conduct did not fall under the current definition of sexual abuse. The teacher went unpunished.

A suspect in a brutal beating and raping of a 9-year-old girl was allowed bail because the authorities found his conduct did not fall under the “extremely severe” category that would demand pre-trial detention.

Just a few days after the petition “If not NOW then WHEN?” had started, another video clip appeared on social media showing a toddler being grabbed and kissed by an older male stranger in an elevator in Ho Chi Minh City.

The campaign and its supporters have felt an even stronger sense of urgency now, that such change is not only needed but is also inevitable. They want to raise public awareness about sexual harassment and sexual abuse and demand that “the legitimate rights and interests of the people” be protected.

As such, they are hoping that more signatures will be added to the petition in the upcoming days. It is hoped that the increasing public pressure that comes with the petition will then force lawmakers to face this current social crisis of sexual harassment and sexual abuse and institute changes.

Among the demands, the campaign emphasizes the critical role of civil society organizations in raising community awareness, as well as preventing sexual crimes.

The campaigners are especially concerned with the lack of specific and coherent definitions for a variety of conduct that would constitute sexual harassment in the current Penal Code. They also pointed out that the law should also provide for better protection mechanisms for victims of sexual abuse and violent sexual crimes.

The Penal Code is not the only one that needs changes, according to these activists. The Civil Code also needs to be reformed with the guidelines for victims to receive restitution being improved.

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Sick And Injured Inmates In Vietnam Face Inadequate Medical Treatment, Torture

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Shackled inmates. Photo credits: The Marshall Project

An inmate who was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage in January 2019 told his family that he did not get proper treatment and was sent back to prison after about a month in the hospital.

34-year-old Ha Van Truong is currently serving a nine-year-sentence for manslaughter in the case resulting from a land dispute between farmer Dang Van Hien and Long Son Commercial and Investment Company (Long Son), a private company in Dak Nong Province in October 2016.

On March 31, 2019, Truong was, again, admitted to the hospital with the same diagnosis. But his family informed us last night that his conditions have gotten worse. They also stated that during both of his stay in the hospital, he was subjected to shackling – a practice which international human rights law defines as torture.

Last year, the trial of Dang Van Hien and Ha Van Truong received extensive news coverage due to an unusually heightened public sympathy for the defendants, who were perceived as victims of land-grabbing. In Vietnam, land-grabbing has become an increasingly urgent social and political issue that the whole nation often paid close attention to.

After Dang Van Hien was sentenced to death for homicide, more than 3,000 people signed an online petition, asking the president of Vietnam to commute his sentence. Earlier this year, in February 2019, Hien’s case was proceeding towards a trial for cassation – a review of both the law and facts that could give him a second chance at life.

Truong was initially sentenced to 12-year-imprisonment, but an appellate court in Ho Chi Minh City reduced the term to 9 years which again showed the impact of public support on the case.

However, Truong has been a victim of police brutality and torture, and he also did not receive adequate medical care. His family told us that Truong suspected his brain hemorrhage was a result of the injuries he received from police beating during his pre-trial detention. Since then, he has been suffering from a chronic headache, but the prison’s medical clinic only gave him pain reliever medication. He did not receive a proper diagnosis until he fainted and was admitted to the hospital in January 2019.

During his first admission, the authorities waited for two days before informing his family without any specific reasons. Truong was left alone in the hospital with no one to care for him. He was unable to eat solid food, but the police fed him with only rice and pork. The families of other patients had to give him some milk to drink until his family found out about his whereabouts and visited him.

Truong’s current prognosis is not looking too positive. His family said that his body has been frail so he would need assistance to move around and that he often passed out.

In such dire conditions, Truong is still subjected to shackle 24/7 even when he is lying on the hospital bed. Initially, the police chained both Truong’s hands and feet, but now, they only applied such treatment to his feet. The use of shackle on inmates is a violation of the UN’s Nelson Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners.

Truong’s situation is not the exception but rather a depiction of the overall picture of prison conditions in Vietnam.

Families of prisoners of conscience and political dissidents, over the years, repeatedly made allegations about the substandard conditions of Vietnamese prison centers and the mistreatment of prisoners, especially those who needed medical care.

In 2014, prisoner of conscience Dinh Dang Dinh, a teacher, passed away shortly after his release from prison. Dinh maintained his innocence until the day he died. He was collecting signatures of residents in his hometown to protest the government’s plan to mine bauxite in the Highlands of Central Vietnam. Dinh was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 6-year-imprisonment in 2013 for propagandizing against the state. When his health deteriorated, he received a pardon and an immediate release, but it was too late.

His family alleged that the lack of proper medical care and the continued refusal to hospitalize Dinh during his incarceration contributed to his untimely passing.

In March 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed its concerns about the country’s prison conditions, finding that there were: “consistent reports of poor conditions of detention, including overcrowding, use of prolonged solitary confinement, shackling, abuses by other prisoners at the instigation of prison officials, and non-separation of healthy prisoners from those with contagious diseases, intentional exposure of prisoners to HIV infection, denial of medical care; and punitive transfer of prisoners”.

Ha Van Truong remains in critical conditions today, but he has been transferred to Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City – one of the top medical facilities in the country. His family continues to hope and pray for a speedy recovery. But at the same time, they also ask: why didn’t he receive adequate medical treatment during his first hospital admission two months ago?

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