A Prisoner’s Dilemma: The State Of Human Rights Defenders In Vietnam

A Prisoner’s Dilemma: The State Of Human Rights Defenders In Vietnam

Since the United Nations released the first World Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in 2018, the many human rights violations committed by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) have slowly come under international scrutiny.

Many of the same issues presented in the report mentioned above, such as the VCP’s active restriction of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, or a fair trial with due process, continue to persist three years down the line. Even though fewer Vietnamese citizens were convicted in 2020 than in 2019, more were persecuted through other means for simply exercising their supposedly protected rights.

The 88 Project’s 2020 Human Rights Report on Vietnam explores, details, and highlights the many struggles that Vietnamese activists faced that year. And much to everyone’s expectations and disappointment, Vietnam continues to fail in its international obligations to protect the right of free speech and the well-being of its human rights defenders.

People at Risk

Sharing similarities with the data presented by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, the report states that, “[o]f the 35 people arrested in 2020, nine were women…. The top areas of activism of those arrested in 2020 were democracy activists (16), land rights (11), human rights (9), and freedom of expression (8) [and] [t]he most common occupations of those arrested in 2020 were farmers (8), journalists (4), and teachers (3).”

Of those arrested, eight were denied legal representation for the charges filed against them, four were not allowed to be visited by friends or family, six were part of small religious sects, and nine came from ethnic minority groups.

Several high-profile activists were also jailed, such as Pham Doan Trang, a writer and co-founder of the Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese online magazines, and Pham Chi Dung, president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN).

Eleven online commentators were also taken into custody in 2020, and their number makes up roughly 31 percent of all arrests made that year. The most shocking thing is that these people were brought to jail even though they were not members of any specific civil society group; they were arrested for the sole reason that they chose to air  their grievances against the Vietnamese government.

In summation, it is clear that no one is safe from the VCP. It hardly matters to them if you are an activist fighting tooth and nail for your principles and beliefs or an average citizen trying to be as discreet as possible. If you publicly express any discontent or disapproval with the government’s actions you run the genuine risk of being put under the spotlight and you will not be safe from the Communist Party’s malicious retribution.

The Injustice of the Law

The charges facing those arrested are based on specific provisions in the 2015 Vietnamese Penal Code.

To be specific:

  1. Article 118: disrupting security
  2. Article 331: abusing democratic freedoms
  3. Article 117: conducting propaganda against the state
  4. Article 330: resisting officers in the performance of their official duties

These statutes, according to Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, involve national security in Vietnam laws which “are vaguely defined and often used arbitrarily to punish critics, activists, and bloggers.”

He adds, “it’s even more outrageous to lock up someone for five years just because the government arbitrarily decides that they are preparing to criticize the government.”

Yet, this is far from the only maltreatment faced by those arrested.

Several detained individuals have also been denied access to legal representation, meaning that they were sent directly to trial without consulting with a lawyer. And even if they were allowed to meet an attorney, the lawyers were often not given all of the relevant material they might have needed to help defend their client in court.

Additionally, the appeals of political prisoners for reduced sentences or a retrial are often ignored by the judiciary or are not granted. In 2020, only two who appealed their case, Dang Thi Hue and Bui Manh Tien, successfully had their pleas heard. Yet, the sentences of each one were only reduced by three months.

It is apparent that the Vietnamese legal system is skewed against human rights defenders and activists. They are not afforded the legal remedies that they are entitled to by law, and they are also not given proper and impartial trials or allowed to use arbitration to plead their cases.

The Vietnamese government actively refuses to abide by the due process standards that it has codified into law. In any other democratic country, this kind of behavior would not be acceptable. But in a one-party state run by strongmen, this is sadly the norm.

Life Behind Bars

For those already incarcerated, their situation is far from ideal. According to The 88 Project’s report, political prisoners are often “forced into severe physical and psychological conditions” such as the “denial of family communications, denial of adequate healthcare, forced mental health treatment, solitary confinement, and punitive prison transfers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only served as further justification for the Vietnamese government to deny people proper and humane treatment.

The report also details the situations of several imprisoned activists in 2020, such as Hoang Duc Binh, Chau Van Kham, and Nguyen Van Tuc, who are not only barred from meeting or even speaking with their family but are also denied medical care for their severe and underlying health conditions.

Le Anh Hung and Pham Chi Thanh are the names of other political prisoners made to undergo mental health treatments despite being perfectly sane and normal; they, and others like them,  are forced to take anti-psychotic medication and are made to undergo ethically questionable psychiatric therapies which border on torture.

The appalling conditions that political prisoners face in Vietnam are vicious, nasty, and inhumane. They are treated even worse than livestock; they are seen as pariahs, not deserving of even the slightest modicum of respect.

The prison situation reflects what the VCP thinks about the citizens of the country. The moment you become inconvenient, detrimental, or even a minor nuisance to their unchecked power and greed, they will not hesitate to use force, torture, or even to threaten you with the possibility of death to crush your body and spirit.


The tactics used by the Vietnamese government and its state agents against activists and human rights defenders are nothing new; these actions are what they’ve been doing for decades now.

However, due to the ongoing global pandemic, the VCP feels emboldened to further step on the necks of the people it thinks are a danger to its position in society. The Party is willing to toss away the humanity and decency of its citizens just to sate their never-ending lust for riches and power.

The authorities use force and fear in tandem to scare the populace into silence and compliance.

Yet, as imposing and threatening the VCP wants itself to appear, it has failed to acknowledge one simple fact: these acts of oppression against Vietnamese citizens betray the Party’s fear and paranoia.

In reality, the authorities are the ones who are scared. They live in fear that one day, the people may grow wise to the truth: that real power lies not in the state or its corrupt institutions but within the farmer, the student, the teacher, the journalist, and the worker. It is found in the breasts of mothers, fathers, and their children, and in the hearts of all those who desire a better future for themselves and those they love.

The Vietnamese government continues to act with impunity, not because of its abundance of strength but because of its lack of strength.

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