Vietnam Human Rights Defenders Weekly October 03-09, 2016: Police in Vung Tau Detain, Assault Many Activists during Workshop on Civil Society

Vietnam Human Rights Defenders Weekly | October 09, 2016

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On October 8, security forces in Vietnam’s southern city of Vung Tau violently detained around two dozens activists at a workshop on civil society, interrogating them for hours before releasing them at midnight of the same day. Among those detained were prominent dissident Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, legal expert Le Cong Dinh, former prisoners of conscience Pham Ba Hai and Nguyen Thuy Quynh.

Police confiscated the detainees’ cell phones and destroyed them. Many activists, including Le Cong Dinh and Nguyen Thuy Quynh, said they were brutally beaten by police officers during interrogation and upon release.

The Higher People’s Court in Ho Chi Minh City on October 5 reduced the four-year sentence of well-known blogger Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (aka Nguyen Ngoc Gia) by one year but kept the three-year period of house arrest that follows the imprisonment. The well-known blogger was arrested in December 2014 on allegation of conducting anti-state propaganda under Article 88 of the Penal Code. In late March, he was sentenced to four years in prison and additional three years under house arrest for posting articles criticizing the ruling communist party and its government.

As many as 54 foreign and domestic civil societies, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders and Defend the Defenders issued a joint statement calling on Vietnam’s parliament to further revise its draft Law on Religion and Beliefs to conform with Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights law. The draft, which is expected to be submitted to the parliament for approval soon, has a number of limitations for people and religious groups to practice their faith.

On October 7, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF) issued a statement condemning the Vietnamese government’s policy of isolating Vietnamese journalists and bloggers and its systematic reprisals against those who dare to connect with the outside world. It cited the latest case on September 26 in which security forces in Hanoi blocked Defend the Defenders’s Chief Executive Officer Vu Quoc Ngu from leaving to Paris where he was invited to attend an international conference on press freedom.

Prominent prisoner of conscience Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is reportedly to conduct hunger strike from October 5 to support people in the central coastal region whose life is affected by the environmental disaster caused by the illegal dumping of very toxic industrial waste of the Taiwanese Formosa steel plant in the central province of Ha Tinh.

And other important news.

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===== October 3 =====
Human Rights Watch Urges Vietnam to Free Well-known Blogger ahead of Appeal

Defend the Defenders: On October 3, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on Vietnam to immediately free the blogger Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (aka Nguyen Ngoc Gia) and all other peaceful critics imprisoned for criticizing the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam and its government.

The call was made two days ahead of the scheduled appeal hearing of Mr. Ngoc by the Higher People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City. On March 30, he was convicted of writing and publishing critical articles online and sentenced to four years in prison and three years under house arrest.

“Expressing critical views about the Vietnamese government should not be a crime,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnamese government should learn to tolerate different opinions, not just those that praise the ruling party and government.”

Mr. Ngoc, 50, is a former staff member at Ho Chi Minh City Television. He writes about social and political issues relating to democracy and human rights for the Vietnamese page of Radio Free Asia, and on politically independent websites including Dan Luan, Dan Lam Bao, and Dan Chim Viet. He has also expressed support for bloggers and activists imprisoned for exercising their basic rights, such as Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Quoc Quan, Dinh Nguyen Kha, and Bui Thi Minh Hang.

He was arrested on December 27, 2014 and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the country’s Penal Code.

“The Vietnamese government should recognize that putting peaceful critics behind bars does not help with the country’s development or the government’s standing with its own people,” Mr. Adams said.

Vietnam’s new leadership has intensified its crackdown on local political dissidents, social activists and human rights in a bid to keep the nation under a one-party regime. Since the beginning of this year, Vietnam has imprisoned 18 activists, including prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and land right activist Can Thi Theu.

A number of activists, including human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and former prisoner of conscience Tran Anh Kim have been detained for long periods without being brought to court.

Vietnam: Free Prominent Blogger

===== October 04 =====

Vietnam Revokes Press Card of Editor-in-chief

By Defend the Defenders: Vietnamese Minister Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan on October 4 gave reasons for the revocation of the press card of an editor-in-chief and the three-month suspension of an electronic newspaper, one day after the ministry announced its decision on the disciplinary actions.

One of the reasons is that PetroTimes news portal of which Nguyen Nhu Phong was the editor-in-chief reposted an overseas interview with well-known Vietnamese blogger Bui Thanh Hieu (aka Nguoi Buon Gio) who lives in exile in Germany. Hieu has been writing a series of articles about unknown parts in Vietnam’s politics and his blog attracts a large number of audience.

On September 30, PetroTimes posted an article about Trinh Xuan Thanh who is sought internationally for his responsibilities in causing VND3.3 trillion ($148 million) losses in the state-owned PetroVietnam Construction JSC (PVC) during his chairmanship in the firm in the 2011-2013 period.

The entry was removed from the site shortly after it was posted.

Mr. Tuan said that Bui Thanh Hieu is one of the extremists causing social disorder and publishing writings that defame the state and senior officials. Therefore, the reposting of an interview with Hieu has disgraced the electronic newspaper and indirectly supported the hostile activities.

The minister said that the disciplines are resulted from wrongdoings of PetroTimes and the editor-in-chief, calling misdeeds are systematic. He noted that the news portal has derailed its focus on energy, oil, and gas to post entries slandering others’ dignity.

He concluded that the editor-in-chief needed to bear responsibilities for the derailment after being warned many times.

After the MIC announced its punishments to Mr. Phong and the news portal, there has been an increase in public attention on the controversial article relating to the prominent blogger.

Under Decision 1701 signed on October 3 by Minister Tuan, the MIC only said that the disciplinary actions resulted from the paper “violating regulations in journalism” without specifying the wrongdoings.

The ministry said that the decision was made after the 61-year-old editor-in-chief was sacked for the violations.

The news portal will be suspended for three months starting October 3.

PetroTimes is under the management of the Vietnam Petroleum Association while Mr. Phong, who is a former police colonel, worked as a deputy editor-in-chief at the Ministry of Public Security’s mouthpiece Cong An Nhan Dan (People’s Police) newspaper before joining PetroTimes, a site covers a wide range of topics, in 2011.

In the past, PetroTimes had many articles attacking local dissidents, social activists and human rights violations with fabricated stories. The newspaper and its Editor-in-chief Phong were considered very loyal to the ruling party, particularly Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung who stepped down in July after failing to be re-elected to the party’s Central Committee in its 12th National Congress in late January.

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Vietnamese Fined for Criticizing Gov’t Policies on Facebook

By Defend the Defenders: Authorities in Vietnam’s central city of Danang have imposed a fine of VND8.75 million ($390) on a local man who allegedly posted offensive comments about city policies and officials on his Facebook page.

Inspectors from the city’s Department of Information and Communication said that Giang Kien Huy was administratively punished for electronically slandering and sabotaging individuals and organizations.

Huy, who manages a local internet shop, established the page “I love Danang” on the popular social network several years ago to offer daily updates about life, culture, travel and government policies in Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam.

The page took a critical turn, recently, posting status updates that ultimately were deemed “offensive to the city leaders.”

A source at the department said Huy’s status updates were “subjective, one-sided, distorted and aimed at maligning and defaming local leaders.”

His page remained up on Thursday morning with more than 74,000 followers, though the controversial posts had all been removed.

Nearly 49 million out of 92 million people in Vietnam enjoy internet access and there are more than 30 million Facebook accounts.

Last year, then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged government officials to embrace social media networks, suggesting that engagement offered the best means of dealing with those who use them to slander the country’s leadership or terrorize the population.

Vietnam, which ranks 175th out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, has used controversial articles such as 78, 88, and 258 in the country’s Penal Code to silence local dissidents, social activists and human rights defenders.

In August, authorities in the central province of Khanh Hoa sentenced Nguyen Huu Thien An and Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy to two and three years in prisons, respectively, for their postings in social networks which criticized the government and promoted multi-party democracy.

===== October 05 =====

Vietnam Court Cuts Jail Sentence of Well-known Blogger to Three Years

Defend the Defenders: The Higher People’s Court in Ho Chi Minh City on October 5 reduced the four-year sentence of well-known blogger Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (aka Nguyen Ngoc Gia) by one year but kept the three-year period of house arrest that follows the imprisonment.

During the appeal hearing which lasted less than two hours, the court cut the jail sentence the People’s Court in Ho Chi Minh City gave him on March 30, saying the reduction was based on the contribution of his family to the communist cause.

Mr. Ngoc, 50, is a former staff member at Ho Chi Minh City Television. He writes about social and political issues relating to democracy and human rights for the Vietnamese page of Radio Free Asia, and on independent websites including Dan Luan, Dan Lam Bao, and Dan Chim Viet. He has also expressed support for bloggers and activists imprisoned for exercising their basic rights, such as Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Quoc Quan, Dinh Nguyen Kha, and Bui Thi Minh Hang.

Ngoc was arrested on December 27, 2014 and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the country’s Penal Code. According to the indictment, Ngoc was accused of sending many articles to foreign and domestic websites, 22 of them have contained untrue information and distorted the country’s leaders.

Similar to the trial in March, authorities in Ho Chi Minh City did not allow local activists to attend the appeal hearing.

The sentence reduction of Ngoc was rare especially in political cases in which defendants often rejected indictments of the court and claimed that they were innocent. On the appeal hearing of prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh on September 22, the Higher People’s Court in Hanoi upheld the five-year imprisonment although Vinh’s father was a senior diplomat and member of the party’s Central Committee.

Two days ahead of the appeal hearing, Human Rights Watch called on Vietnam to immediately free Mr. Ngoc and all other peaceful critics imprisoned for criticizing the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam and its government.

“Expressing critical views about the Vietnamese government should not be a crime,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based human rights organization. “The Vietnamese government should learn to tolerate different opinions, not just those that praise the ruling party and government.”

“The Vietnamese government should recognize that putting peaceful critics behind bars does not help with the country’s development or the government’s standing with its own people,” Mr. Adams said.

Vietnam’s new leadership formed after the party’s National Congress in late January has intensified its crackdown on local political dissidents, social activists and human rights in a bid to keep the nation under a one-party regime. Since the beginning of this year, Vietnam has imprisoned 18 activists, including land right activist Can Thi Theu.

A number of other activists, including human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and former prisoner of conscience Tran Anh Kim have been detained for long periods without being brought to court.

Recently, the London-based Amnesty International urged Vietnam to release 82 prisoners of conscience, including bloggers Vinh, Ngoc, Kim and Theu.

www.vietnamhumanrightsdefenders.net/2016/10/05/vietnam-court-cuts-sentence-of-well-known-blogger-to-three-years/

===== October 6 =====

Congressmen urge returning Vietnam to ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ list over religious restrictions

Signal Tribune: U.S. Reps. Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) and Ed Royce (CA-39) this week urged Secretary of State John Kerry to exercise his authority under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to return Vietnam to the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) because of government moves to restrict religious freedom.

In a letter, Lowenthal and Royce point out that Vietnam was removed from this list in November 2006 because of supposed government progress on increasing religious freedom for the Vietnamese people.

“In the nearly 10 years since Vietnam was no longer considered a CPC, however, the Vietnamese government has demonstrated a lack of progress on respecting religious freedom and has time and again violated its citizens’ fundamental right to freely practice their religion,” the Congressmen wrote.

The letter points out numerous recent incidents in Vietnam in which the government has mistreated worshippers of all faiths. These include the imprisonment of Lutheran pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh since 2012 and the detention and beating of his wife, Tran Thi Hong, by Vietnamese government security forces earlier this year.

Just last month, government authorities demolished the Lien Tri Buddhist Temple in Saigon, an important symbol for the community with over 70 years of history, according to Lowenthal’s office. In addition, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), whose leader Thich Quang Do remains under house arrest, continues to be subjected to restrictions on its freedom to operate and practice. The temple has long served as a meeting place and shelter for human rights activists, civil society and NGOs.

Lowenthal and Royce write in the letter that the government of Vietnam “…has continued work on a draft law on religion with the potential to increase government interference in religious activities and oversight of religious organizations. Designating Vietnam as a CPC would provide incentive to the policymakers drafting the law on religion to respect religious freedoms in the new law.”

The full text of the letter is available at http://lowenthal.house.gov/uploadedfiles/lowenthal_royce_letter_on_vietnam_cpc.pdf.

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APHR Slams Vietnam’s ‘Repressive’ Religious Law Reforms

Jakarta Globe: Lawmakers from across the region on Thursday (06/10) called on the Vietnamese government to reject a draft law regarding religious freedoms until the law is brought to international human rights standards.

In a statement sent to the Jakarta Globe, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) voiced concerns of increasingly authoritarian laws trampling on freedoms.

The draft, which many hoped would see the communist regime loosen the reigns on religious freedoms, maintains requirements for religious groups to register with the state and curbs freedoms in association, particularly in rural areas.

“Across Southeast Asia we are seeing the passing of repressive laws that seek to place into law restrictions on citizens’ human rights and freedoms,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian parliamentarian and chairman of APHR, said in the statement.

“The importance for laws that promote tolerance and uphold the rights to religious freedom, and, inversely, the need for legislation that tackles the dangers of hate speech and discrimination, cannot be understated at this time in our region. With certain constituents and groups seeking to stoke and manipulate ethnic, social and religious divides, our focus has never been more needed on ensuring we, as legislators, use our positions to promote tolerance and religious freedom,” he said.

APHR and other human rights civil groups, including Amnesty International Human Rights Watch, teamed up in an open letter addressed to Vietnam’s National Assembly President Nguyen Kim Ngan to improve the proposed law changes.

The draft has been revised several times, inviting increasing criticism from religious group, such as the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who would likely be affected but were not consulted. It is set to be voted on at some stage over the next two months.

“Basic guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief continue to be undermined by onerous registration requirements and excessive state interference in religious organizations’ internal affairs,” the letter said.

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Government Urged to Revise Draft Law on Religion

Christian Solidarity Worldwide: Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), together with over 50 civil society organizations and Vietnamese religious groups, calls upon the Vietnamese government to further revise its draft Law on Belief and Religion, to conform with Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights law.

This is Vietnam’s first law on religion and belief, and the current draft is likely be voted into law by the National Assembly at its session in October-November 2016.

The draft law has been revised several times. The present draft improves on previous versions and now includes provisions for the right to change one’s religion, and the right of religious organizations to participate in activities such as education, vocational training, medical care and social and humanitarian assistance. However, basic guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief continue to be undermined by onerous registration requirements and excessive State interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations.

In a joint statement, CSW and other civil society organizations have called upon the Vietnamese Government to revise the law to remove ambiguities which leave space for discrimination and abuse; to bring its definition of religion in line with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and to ensure that registration is not a pre-requisite for the exercise of freedom of religion or belief.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “While there have been some positive revisions to the draft law, the latest draft still falls short of the standards set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This letter draws on the criticisms and concerns voiced by Vietnamese religious communities and shared by international civil society organizations. CSW continues to receive reports of the harassment and arbitrary detention of unregistered Protestants and other religious minorities; we are therefore particularly concerned about the possible impact of this law on unregistered groups. We urge the Vietnamese Government to consult with religious communities and to revise the law to ensure that registration is not a pre-requisite for the exercise of freedom of religion or belief.”

===== October 07 =====

RSF Criticizes Vietnam on Preventing Bloggers from Meeting with Foreigners

Defend the Defenders: On October 7, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF) issued a statement condemning the Vietnamese government’s policy of isolating Vietnamese journalists and bloggers and its systematic reprisals against those who dare to connect with the outside world.

The Paris-based organization cited the latest case in which Vietnam’s security forces barred Vu Quoc Ngu, chief executive officer of the human rights organization Defend the Defenders from boarding a flight to Bangkok on September 26. “National security” under Decree 136 was the ground cited by the Vietnamese police in preventing him from leaving the country.

Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk said the blockage aims to isolate journalists and bloggers from the rest of the world. RSF urges the international community not to ignore these serious violations of the fundamental freedoms of journalists and human rights defenders in Vietnam, he said.

Vietnam’s authorities have repeatedly prevented Mr. Ngu from travelling abroad during the past two years, including in July 2015 when he was invited to attend a cyber-security seminar organized by RSF in Bangkok, said RSF in its statement. He was also barred from attending meetings with foreign diplomats including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski one week ahead of the visit of President Barack Obama to Vietnam in May.

Vietnam is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The Communist Party runs the entire country and exercises a draconian level of control at all levels of the administration and society, RSF noted.

Vietnam’s bloggers denied all contact with outside world
http://ec2-52-49-47-178.eu-west-1.compute.amazonaws.com/2016/10/08/rsf-criticizes-vietnam-on-preventing-bloggers-from-contacting-with-foreigners/

===== October 08 =====

Prominent Vietnamese Activists Detained, Beaten while Attending Workshop on Civil Society in Vung Tau

Defend the Defenders: Security forces in Vietnam’s southern city of Vung Tau on October 8 detained a group of around 30 activists when they gathered at a local hotel to attend a workshop on civil society. The local police interrogated, beat and destroyed their communication devices before releasing them at midnight of the same day.

Among those detained were prisoners of conscience Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, lawyer Le Cong Dinh, Pham Ba Hai, Le Thang Long, Nguyen Thuy Quynh, activists Nguyen Thanh Hai, Ngo Thi Hong Lam, Nguyen Trang Nhung and others from Saigon and Ba Ria-Vung Tau.

Participants said when they started the workshop in Herra Palace hotel in the city at 2.30PM, local authorities deployed a large number of police officers to block the hotel and later came in and arrested all activists.

Later, the police divided the detainees into small groups and took them to many police stations where they confiscated their cell phones and cameras and interrogated them. During questioning, they brutally beat many activists, including Ms. Nguyen Thuy Quynh and Mr. Le Cong Dinh.

The police said the workshop was illegal as the organizers failed to get permission from the local authorities while the activists answered that they have no need to obtain approval from state agencies since the right to assembly is enshrined in the country’s 2013 Constitution.

Police confiscated the detained activists’ communication devices and threw them into water before returning them to the owners, activists said.

At mid-night, police in Vung Tau took the detainees to remote areas and released them one by one in different places. Many of them had difficulty in finding ways to come back to the city since they were not familiar with the areas and they had no cell phone to contact each other.

Ms. Nguyen Thuy Quynh said police confiscated her identification card after torturing her. They attacked her again before forcing her out of their car into the dark. Ms. Ngo Thi Hong Lam said after being released, they avoided lighted places and ran into the dark to hide as they feared that the police may send thugs to beat them again.

Le Cong Dinh said police officers tortured him and robbed his smart phones so after being released at midnight he couldn’t contact other activists. He took a taxi to return to Saigon during the night.

Vietnam’s security forces have strived not to allow activists to gather for demonstrations or experience sharing as the ruling communist party vows to keep the country under a one-party regime and requests the police forces to make all efforts to prevent the formation of opposition parties.

On April 8, security forces in Hanoi also dispersed a peaceful gathering of local activists, detaining and beating many dissidents, social activists and human rights defenders.

On February 20-21, police in Ba Ria-Vung Tau harassed participants of a workshop on cyber security organized by Defend the Defenders with participation of dozens of activists from the southern region in a local resort. Police also said the organizer must get approval first and requested suspension of the workshop. They continued to cause trouble when the activists held meetings in one of rented rooms.

Authorities in many Vietnamese localities, especially Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have been deploying large number of plainclothes agents to patrol near private residences of local activists, placing them under de facto house arrest in a bid to block them from going out to attend peaceful gatherings or meetings with foreign diplomats.

In its second session on October 20-November 19, Vietnam’s parliament is scheduled to approve a draft law on association which has a number of regulations limiting the rights of association which are enshrined in the Constitution, observers said.

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Prominent Prisoner of Conscience Conducts Hunger Strike to Support Formosa-affected People

By Defend the Defenders: Prominent prisoner of conscience Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is serving his 16-year sentence in prison, is conducting a hunger strike to support people in the central coastal region who have been affected by the environmental disaster caused by the Taiwanese Formosa steel plant, said prisoner of conscience Nguyen Kim Nhan, who was released on October 7.

Mr. Thuc started his fasting on October 5 in the Prison No. 6 in the central province of Nghe An’s Thanh Chuong district, one of the toughest detention facilities in Vietnam, said Mr. Nhan when he returned to his home in the northern province of Bac Giang from the same prison.

Thuc said he is conducting the hunger strike to support people who are seeking justice and challenging the Taiwanese company which illegally discharged a huge volume of very toxic industrial waste to Vietnam’s central coast, leading to the environmental catastrophe in which hundreds of tons of fish died along the coast in April-May. The pollution of the waters in the central coastal region has affected hundreds of thousands of people in the region, including fishermen, salt farmers, traders and people who work in tourism industry.

The 50-year-old engineer, entrepreneur and human rights activist was arrested seven years ago and accused of carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the administration under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Thuc started an indefinite fasting in his prison cell from May 24 to demand for rule of law and a national referendum on the political system in Vietnam. He agreed to end the hunger strike on June 7 after local activists persuaded him to save his life to continue fighting for multi-party democracy and human rights improvement in the country.

In August, the prison’s authorities disciplined Thuc, placing him in a room without electricity amid hot summer after he refused to work without being paid in prison (for more information about Mr. Thuc, you can read here: http://ec2-52-49-47-178.eu-west-1.compute.amazonaws.com/category/tran-huynh-duy-thuc/ ).

Meanwhile, Mr. Nhan was released two months earlier than the schedule. He was arrested in June 2011 for the second time, accused of conducting anti-state propaganda under Article 88 of the Penal Code. Later, he was sentenced to five and half years in prison followed by five years under house arrest.

In 2008, Mr. Nhan, born in 1949, was also arrested and sentenced to two years in prison and additional two years under house arrest on the same allegation.

Many international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have urged Vietnam to release both Thuc and Nhan as well as around 100 other prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.