Latest Update: 31 December 2013
The human rights situation in Vietnam over the last quarter continues to be a concern with further executions and harassment of human rights activists close to and on International Human Rights Day. However, compared to the rest of the 2013 there has been a reduction in arrests, detentions and harassment of human rights activists. The UK hope this trend continues, especially as Vietnam will take a seat on the UN Human Rights Council from 2014.
Tran Dai Quang, Minister of Public Security (MPS), announced in November 2013 to the National Assembly that seven prisoners had been executed since the resumption of the death penalty on 6 August 2013. He also proposed the resumption of execution by firing squad, in addition to death by lethal injection, until the end of 2015. The Deputy Ambassador raised our concerns with Mr Mai Phan Dung, Deputy Director General of the International Organisations Directorate in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There are unconfirmed reports of a case of execution taking three hours by lethal injection in Da Nang which, if true, would contravene recognised international conditions for prisoners.
Facts concerning the number of executions and the number on death row are scarce and are not discussed in the state controlled media.
In November two individuals – Vu Quoc Hao, a general director of a subsidiary of a major Vietnamese bank and Dang Van Hai, the chairman of a construction company – were sentenced to death for their involvement in a $25 million property fraud. As convictions under the death penalty are a state secret, we do not know if this is the first time an economic crime has come under the death penalty, or if there will be an appeal. On 10 December, International Human Rights Day, there were reports on social media of police harassment of human rights activists, including in Ho Chi Minh City. Photographs and a video of the attacks circulated, which showed bloggers being beaten up in their homes. We judge that the images are genuine. The weekend before, two gatherings of activists to celebrate Human Rights Day in a park in Hanoi were disrupted by police, including undercover officers.
Dinh Nhat Uy, a blogger, whose case was covered in the last quarterly update, received a suspended sentence in September of 15 months’ imprisonment under Article 258 for abusing democratic freedoms to undermine the State. This is a relatively lenient sentence in comparison to the recent spate of harsh sentences in similar cases. Vietnam was elected in November to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) for the 2014-2016 term. It ran unopposed in the Asia-Pacific region receiving 184 votes. The reduction in arrests, detentions and harassment of human rights activists may be a result of Vietnam’s preparatory work and successful election to the HRC. High-profile cases attracting international attention would not have been in its interests.
Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Minh Binh commented that membership reflected “the Vietnamese (Communist) Party and State’s view of human rights as a common aspiration of human beings, as well as their consistent policy of respecting and ensuring human rights, and enhancing international cooperation in this field.”
The UK, also elected to the HRC, looks forward to Vietnam’s membership acting as a catalyst for further progress on Vietnam’s human rights record. On International Human Rights Day, the UK and Germany issued a statement regarding Vietnam’s seat on the HRC, calling for greater action on freedom of expression and the death penalty in particular.
A positive development came when Vietnam signed the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) on 7 November. The official Vietnam statement is here. We have previously pushed both bilaterally and through the EU for Vietnam to sign up to UNCAT. The EU issued a statement, supported by member states including the UK.
Update: 30 September 2013
The human rights situation in Vietnam has continued to worsen during the last three months, with the resumption of executions and continued restrictions to free expression. While there has been an increase in activism by human rights advocates, this has also resulted in increased government activity against them, including through arrest and intimidation of bloggers, activists and groups.
On 6 August Vietnam resumed capital punishment and executed convicted murderer, Nguyen Anh Tuan, by lethal injection. Unofficial figures suggest there are now 585 prisoners on death row. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 116 of these prisoners face imminent execution, having exhausted their appeals. There had been a de facto moratorium in Vietnam since November 2011, when Vietnam switched from execution by firing squad to execution by lethal injection, because the country could not produce the necessary chemicals itself. Then Minister for South Asia Alistair Burt issued a statement condemning the resumption of executions.
In July and August a broad coalition of activists formed the ‘258 group’ with the aim of promoting human rights and democracy in Vietnam. Their specific activities included calling for the repeal of Penal Code article 258 (‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State’), and to demonstrate Vietnam’s commitments as a candidate for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. The group attracted international attention, and the EU met with representatives of the group ahead of the EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in September. Subsequently a number of the group’s members and their families have been harassed and detained by the Ministry of Public Security.
On 1 September a law that regulates online activity, Decree 72, came into effect. It has the potential to further tighten the government’s control over the internet as an open environment for peaceful political expression. The UK supported a statement from the Freedom Online Coalition highlighting Vietnam’s international human rights obligations on freedom of expression, and raised the issue locally through the EU Delegation.
A number of specific cases highlight the continuing trend of restrictions on freedom of expression:
Throughout July the ex-wife of imprisoned blogger Nguyen Van Hai (“Dieu Cay”) reported that he went on hunger strike in protest at being forced into solitary confinement for refusing to sign an admission of guilt while in prison. He ended his strike after more than 30 days when the prison authorities looked at his case. We raised our concerns about his wellbeing directly with the government.
On 16 August Nguyen Phuong Uyen and Dinh Nguyen Kha’s prison sentences for subversive activities against the state (see our quarter two update) were reduced on appeal from a six to a three year suspended sentence and from eight to four years respectively. This positive development, coming following international pressure, was overshadowed by claims from his family that Kha subsequently confessed to terrorism charges under duress.
On 27 August Dinh Nhat Uy, brother of Dinh Nguyen Kha (see above), was charged under Article 258 of the Penal Code (“abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State…”) more than two months after his arrest on 12 June. The list of activities he is charged with includes owning posters calling for his brother’s freedom, criticising the judiciary on Facebook, owning a controversial book about Vietnamese history, and giving interviews to foreign media agencies.
On 4 September police and Catholic protestors clashed in Nghe An province resulting in a number of injuries. Protestors claim the police used excessive force during an organised demonstration calling for the release of two Catholic youths. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who issued a statement and met with the EU, denied that the force used was excessive. While we welcome the more transparent government approach in the follow-up to these events, we have concerns that groups, including religious groups, who are critical of government activities still come under undue pressure from the Vietnamese government.
On 11 September 65 year-old activist Ngo Hao was sentenced to 15 years in prison for subversion in Phu Yen province. State media reported that he kept, wrote and disseminated anti-state documents and had connections with political organisations overseas considered illegal by the Vietnamese government.
On 25 September Blogger Nguyen Tuong Thuy, his wife and daughter, activist Pham Ba Hai, Nguyen Phuong Uyen (see above), Uyen’s mother, the ex-wife of imprisoned Nguyen Van Hai (again see above), Duong Thi Tan and Le Quoc Quyet brother of Le Quoc Quan (a prominent human rights lawyer and blogger) were detained while they were having dinner together at Thuy’s house in Hanoi. All were released that evening without charge.
Despite the above, Vietnam made good progress on LGBT rights. On 4 August Vietnam held its first Gay Pride event in Hanoi. While not officially approved, the event gained good domestic and international coverage, and was considered a success by the organisers.
Update: 30 June 2013
There has been an upsurge in high profile human rights incidents in Vietnam since April. These included human rights themed ‘picnics’ over the course of two weekends in early May. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang activists gathered to promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and discuss human rights more broadly. At the first picnic they were met with obstruction, harassment and occasionally violence. After adverse international coverage, including a letter from Amnesty International to Tran Dai Quang, Minister of Public Security, a second wave of picnics passed the following weekend without incident.
Lack of transparency in the application of law and justice is a theme which runs through four other high profile cases of the last update. Two students Dinh Nguyen Kha and Nguyen Phuong Uyen were sentenced on 16 May under national security articles. Uyen received six years, while Kha received eight years after the one-day trial; it took the court approximately 3 ½ hours to try and convict the two individuals.
In May the appeal of 14 Catholic activists convicted in early January for subversion was heard. The original sentences, during a closed trial, ranged from three to 13 years in prison, with one activist given a suspended sentence. The 14 activists – which included students, bloggers, and citizen journalists – were accused of having ties to the banned Viet Tan network. At the appeal, sentences were later reduced for four of the activists, Paulus Le Van Son who had the greatest reduction from 13 years to 4 years. The others were reduced by 6-12 months.
Another case which hit the headlines was the hunger strike of human rights activist, Dr Cu Huy Ha Vu. Dr Vu began a hunger strike at the end of May to protest the conditions of his imprisonment and the lack of response to his letters of complaint. All four issues showed the authorities failing to provide information or holding a trial behind closed doors. The UK was active in supporting EU statements on all four cases.
Also in May a court sentenced eight people, from the ‘Ha Mon’ religious group to between three to 11 years in prison for “sabotaging the policy on solidarity”. The issue is linked to land rights. Adecade earlier the villagers had established a sacred site on an area earmarked for development. The villagers were sentenced at a one-day trial.
There were more cases in June. In Long An, the blogger Dinh Nhat Uy was detained for three months for posting article “that distort the truth and defame state organisations.” Similarly well known blogger Pham Viet Dao, was arrested for abuse of “democratic freedoms to attack state interests…”. Finally Da Nang-based blogger Truong Duy Nhat was arrested and moved to Hanoi. Nhat had previously written asking for the Prime Minister and Secretary General to resign and asked for a public vote of confidence.
All three were arrested under law 258 for abusing democratic freedoms. The reasons for his arrest are unclear, again highlighting the lack of transparency in this type of case, but likely to be for his criticism of the government.
On a different track but an issue which again received international coverage and resonated with the public was the dropping of certain international new channels including BBC World by some cable and satellite operators. The problem occurred due to the requirement for an editing licence for foreign broadcasters. The BBC in common with other established news broadcasters will not allow for its content to be edited pre-broadcast. Part of the reason was the lack of clarity of the law and nervousness on the part of cable and satellite operators. The Embassy raised the issue with both the Ministry of Information and Communication and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Following this the channels were restored. We hope this to be the end of the matter.
Finally, in May the British Ambassador opened the Embassy funded ‘Lao Cai Compassion House’ a reintegration shelter for human trafficking girl victims originating from the north of the central areas of Vietnam. The Compassion House will be used by Lao Cai provincial government and Pacific Links Foundation to teach the girls skills designed to help them reintegrate into society.
Update: 31 March 2013
The human rights environment in Vietnam remains poor despite the government’s decision to apply for membership of the UN Human Rights Council. The beginning of the year saw a number of human rights activists, especially bloggers, receive long custodial sentences during trials which were often behind closed doors.
Prominent human rights campaigner Nguyen Quoc Quan was released at the end of January after nine months in detention for links with the banned Viet Tan group. Human rights defender Le Cong Dinh was released in February after serving three and a half years of a five year sentence.
Reporters Without Borders list Vietnam in their 2013 “Enemies of the Internet” report as one of five states conducting systematic online surveillance resulting in serious human rights violations. They describe Vietnam as the world’s third biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China and Oman.
Vietnam is currently preparing for a Universal Periodical Review (a periodical UN assessment of its human rights situation) which will be completed in 2014.
The General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, visited the UK in January. He met both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Human rights were among the topics discussed. Prior to the visit BBC Vietnam were invited to Vietnam to conduct interviews with Ministers, senior officials and the British Ambassador.
During his visit to Europe the General Secretary also had an (unprecedented) audience with the Pope.
This year has already seen two high profile cases, including the sentencing of 14 Catholic activists in Vinh province for subversive activity. Of these, 13 were given prison sentences of between three and 13 years and one received a suspended sentence. The UK supported the statement by Franz Jessen, the EU Ambassador to Vietnam, calling for the upholding of the fundamental right for people to express their opinions freely. This case attracted substantial international media coverage. Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders posted strong statements in support of the activists on their websites. The UK, along with other diplomatic missions from Canada, USA, Australia, Switzerland and Norway, met family members of the 14 activists to receive a petition calling for their release.
At the beginning of February 22 people were convicted of trying to overthrow the government. Suspected leader Phan Van Thu, 65, was sentenced to life imprisonment. 21 other defendants were sentenced to between ten and 17 years imprisonment. In another high profile case journalist Nguyen Dac Kien was fired from his newspaper for criticising the General Secretary on his blog about constitutional reform. Constitutional reform has opened up greater space for discussion, including about the Party’s role, but the government’s reaction to comments that are critical of their position has been broadly negative.
The British Embassy continues to be active on the human rights agenda, engaging with government officials as well as journalists, activists, bloggers, NGOs and foreign diplomats.