Vietnam Human Rights Defenders’ Weekly Report for April 16-22, 2018: Appeal Hearing of Environmentalist Hoang Duc Binh Set on April 24

Defend the Defenders | April 22, 2018

The People’s Court of Nghe An will hold an appeal hearing of human rights defender and environmentalist Hoang Duc Binh on April 24, two months after the People’s Court of Dien Chau district convicted the activist and sentenced him to 14 years in prison on allegations of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties” under Article 330 and “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens” under Article 331 of the country’s 2015 Penal Code.

It is expected that the court will uphold the sentence given the results of the recent political trials, in which local activists were sentenced to lengthy imprisonments of between three and 16 years in jail.

Protestant pastor Nguyen Trung Ton, engineer Pham Van Troi, veteran journalist and Vice President of Viet Labor Movement and enterpreneur Nguyen Bac Truyen have submitted their appeals to challenge the decision of the Hanoi People’s Court which sentenced them to between seven and 13 years in jail in the first-instance hearing on April 5. Also convicted on subversion in the same case, prominent human rights attorney Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Ms. Le Thu Ha have yet to appeal. The two were arrested in late 2015 and sentenced to 15 years nine years in prison, respectively.

On April 21, a group of Hanoi-based intellectuals, including Dr. Nguyen Quang A, retired police Colonel Nguyen Dang Quang and veteran writer Nguyen Binh Nguyen, visited villagers in Dong Tam commune, My Duc district. On their way back to the city’s center, they were stopped by thugs and later police in a trumped-up traffic accident. After long detention, the group was released in the late evening of Saturday.

On the next day, many activists in Hanoi were placed under house arrest as local authorities sent plainclothes agents and militia to their private residences in a bid to prevent them from going to Dong Tam to mark the first anniversary of the end of Dong Tam hostage crisis.

Human Rights Watch released its report on Vietnam in 2017, saying the human rights situation in the Southeast Asian nation is seriously deteriorated as the local government continued its severe crackdown on local activists while imposed hard policies regarding political and civil rights.

The unsanctioned organization Association to Protect Freedom of Religion has released its report on religious freedom in Vietnam in the first quarter of 2018, saying violations of religious freedom still exist and are regular in small religious communities such as the Hoa Hao Buddhist Purity Sect and Cao Dai Church as well as Protestant groups while Catholic clergy and followers have been discriminated and troubled with adminisrative procedures.

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===== April 16 =====

Association to Protect Freedom of Religion Releases Vietnam Report in Jan-March 2018

The unsanctioned organization Association to Protect Freedom of Religion has released its report on religious freedom in Vietnam in the first quarter of 2018.

Based on the overview of freedom to religions in Vietnam in the first quarter of 2018 and the number of violations of the right to the freefom of religions committed by state agencies, a conclusion can be made that violations of religious freedom still exist and are regular in small religious communities such as the Hoa Hao Buddhist Purity Sect and Cao Dai Church as well as Protestant groups. Catholic clerks and followers have been discriminated and troubled with adminisrative procedures.

OnJanuary 1, the Law on Religion became effective despite its shortcomings that religious clerks pointed out and requested for being amended. The approval and implementation of the law which is not supported by senior religious clergy will affect the right to the freedom of religions and beliefs so followers will meet challenges in the coming years.


===== April 17 =====

Human Rights Watch: Vietnam Events of 2017

Vietnam’s human rights situation seriously deteriorated in 2017. Police arrested at least 21 people for sweeping “national security” offenses that are used to punish critical speech and peaceful activism.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

Vietnam frequently used vaguely worded penal code provisions during the year to crack down on dissent, including “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration,” “undermining national great unity,” “conducting propaganda against the state,” and “abusing the rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state.” Other laws, such as disrupting public order and resisting officials carrying out their public duty, are also used to repress exercise of basic civil and political liberties.

In June 2017, the National Assembly, which operates under the effective control of the ruling Communist Party, revised sections of the penal code to criminalize actions related to preparing to perform forbidden acts involving national security. Those found guilty face up to five years in prison. The revised penal code also holds lawyers criminally responsible if they fail to report their own clients to authorities for a number of crimes, including national security violations.

During 2017, authorities arrested at least 21 rights bloggers and activists, including former political prisoners Nguyen Bac Truyen, Truong Minh Duc, Nguyen Van Tuc, Nguyen Trung Ton, and Pham Van Troi, for exercising their civil and political rights in a way that the government views as threatening national security. At time of writing, at least 10 other people had already been put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to between 5 to 10 years in prison.

Authorities continued to detain many people without trial, including blogger Ho Van Hai (also known as Dr. Ho Hai), held since November 2016, and rights campaigners Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha, detained since December 2015.

In May, an appeals court upheld the long prison sentences given to Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung. In December 2016, the People’s Court of Thai Binh sentenced Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung to 13 and 12 years in prison, respectively, for allegedly founding a pro-democracy group called the National Force to Raise the Flag of Democracy.

In June, a court in Khanh Hoa sentenced prominent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (also known as Mother Mushroom) to 10 years in prison for critical online posts and documents she published on the internet collected from public sources, including state-sanctioned media. In July, a court in Ha Nam province sentenced prominent activist Tran Thi Nga to nine years in prison for her internet posts.

Physical assaults against human rights activists occur frequently. In June 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report highlighting 36 incidents in which men in civilian clothes beat activists between January 2015 and April 2017, often resulting in serious injuries. Attacks by thugs on rights campaigners took place in many regions, sometimes in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to stop the attacks.

A typical case occurred in February 2017, when a group of men in civilian clothes abducted former political prisoner Nguyen Trung Ton and his friend Nguyen Viet Tu off the street, dragged them into a van, and drove away. While in the van, the men stripped off Ton’s and Tu’s clothes, covered their heads with their jackets, threatened them, and repeatedly hit them with iron pipes before dumping them in a forest, far from where they had been seized. Nguyen Trung Ton required surgery at a local hospital for the severe injuries he incurred. Police failed to seriously investigate the case or apprehend any suspects. In July, Nguyen Trung Ton was arrested and charged with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration.”

Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly, Association, and Movement

Vietnam prohibits the establishment or operation of independent political parties, labor unions, and human rights organizations. Authorities require approval for public gatherings and refuse permission for meetings, marches, or public assemblies they deem to be politically unacceptable. In September, police used excessive force while dispersing protesters in front of the entrance of a Hong Kong-owned textile factory in Hai Duong province. Many people were injured.

Hundreds of people in central provinces including Quang Binh, Ha Tinh, and Nghe An held regular protests against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel corporation that dumped toxic waste in the ocean, causing a massive marine environment disaster in April 2016.

Land confiscation that displaces local people without providing adequate compensation is one of biggest problems in the country. In April, the people of Dong Tam commune in Hanoi took a nationally unprecedented move by holding 38 policemen and local government officials hostage for a week over a long-unresolved land dispute. The villagers released the hostages after Chairman of Hanoi People’s Committee Nguyen Duc Chung promised to conduct a comprehensive inspection.

Local police use force and intimidation to prevent activists from participating in protests and human rights discussions, or attending trials of fellow activists. In May, authorities prevented prominent activists Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Quang A, and Nguyen Dan Que from leaving their houses during the bilateral human rights dialogue between Vietnam and the United States government.

Police also stop rights activists from traveling abroad, sometimes citing vague national security reasons. In January 2017, police prohibited former political prisoner Pham Thanh Nghien from leaving the country for a personal trip to Thailand. In April, they prevented political detainee Nguyen Van Dai’s wife, Vu Minh Khanh, from going to Germany to receive a human rights award from the German Association of Judges on her husband’s behalf.

In May, police stopped Polish-Vietnamese activist Phan Chau Thanh from entering Vietnam, and in June, stopped former political prisoner Do Thi Minh Hanh from leaving for Austria to visit her ill mother. The same month, authorities stripped former political prisoner Pham Minh Hoang of his Vietnamese citizenship and deported him to France.

Freedom of Religion

The government monitors, harasses, and sometimes violently cracks down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions. Unrecognized branches of the Cao Dai church, Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant and Catholic house churches, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam face constant surveillance. In June, An Giang province authorities set up a barrier to block people from Quang Minh Pagoda celebrations on the founding day of Hoa Hao Buddhism.

Ethnic Montagnards face surveillance, intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and mistreatment by security forces. Authorities compelled members of independent Christian Montagnard religious groups to publicly denounce their faith.

Government repression caused hundreds of Montagnards to flee to Cambodia and Thailand. Vietnam responded to the flight of Montagnards into Cambodia by pressuring Cambodian authorities to prevent border crossings and deny the asylum claims of those who arrive in Cambodia. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Vietnam pressured the UN and refugee resettlement countries to not accept Montangnards.

In April, the People’s Court of Gia Lai province sentenced at least five Montagnards to 8 to 10 years in prison for the so-called crime of participating in independent religious groups not approved by the government.

Criminal Justice System

Vietnamese courts remained firmly under government control. Trials of human rights activists consistently failed to meet international fair standards. Police regularly intimidated family members and friends who tried to attend trials of activists.

Police brutality, sometimes leading to deaths in police custody, was common during the year. In May 2017, Vinh Long police arrested Nguyen Huu Tan on charges of conducting propaganda against the state. Police later claimed he committed suicide with a knife left in the interrogation room by a policeman. His family protested, pointing out many discrepancies between what they saw on his body and a blurry police video recording shown to them briefly.

In August, Tran Anh Doanh told a reporter that police in Son Tay, Hanoi, beat him severely to force him to confess to a theft charge. In September, Vo Tan Minh died in police custody in Phan Rang-Thap Cham, Ninh Thuan province, and his family found bruises on his back, legs, and arms. The police initially claimed Vo Tan Minh was involved in a fight, but later suspended five police officers and opened a case of “using corporal punishment.”

People dependent on drugs, including children, are frequently held in government detention centers where they are forced to perform menial work in the name of “labor therapy.” Violations of center rules and failure to meet work quotas are punished by beatings and confinement to disciplinary rooms where detainees claim they are deprived of food and water. State media reported that during the first six months of 2017, authorities sent 3,168 people to centers in Ho Chi Minh City, increasing the number of drug detainees held in the city to 11,317. In August, the government issued Decree 97 that expands the categories of people who can be sent to compulsory drug rehabilitation centers.

Key International Actors

China remained the biggest trade partner of Vietnam, but maritime territorial disputes continued to complicate the relationship between the two countries.

Despite the US pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017, the two countries pursued improved military and economic relations. During his May visit to the White House, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc promised that Vietnam would cooperate with the US on trade, regional security, and immigration issues.

In November, US President Donald Trump traveled to Vietnam for a regional summit and meetings with officials in Hanoi, but did not publicly raise human rights or democracy concerns during the visit.

In August, Germany protested the abduction in Berlin of asylum seeker Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former PetroVietnam executive, and expelled two Vietnamese diplomats who allegedly were involved in the incident.

During the year, the European Union delegation to Vietnam voiced concerns over the arrest and conviction of several activists, but Brussels remained silent on human rights violations in the country. In February, the European Parliament (EP) Subcommittee on Human Rights visited Vietnam.

The EP delegation recognized that Vietnam has made economic and social progress and begun a process of advancing economic and social rights, but voiced concerns over Vietnam’s record on civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association, religion, or belief. In September, the chair of the EP Committee on International Trade said that human rights are at the center of Vietnam-EU trade talks.

===== April 18 =====

Ten Detained as Police Suppress People Protesting Calcium Carbide Mining Project

Defend the Defenders: On April 18, police in Vietnam’s central province of Binh Dinh arrested around ten people during the suppression against local residents when they gathered to protest a calcium-carbide mining project in My Tho commune, Phu My district.

Local citizen journalists reported that authorities in Binh Ding deployed large numbers of police commandos, police and militia to disperse local residents who strive to block mining processes which are harmful for environment and affect their lives.

Protesting people consist of many females and students, reporters said, adding most of detainees were women.

Police took the detainees to the district police’s headquarters and they may be charged with “causing public disorders” or even “resisting against on-duty state officials” according to Article 318 or Article 330, respectively, under the 2015 Penal Code with maximum imprisonment of three years.

The mining project was approved by the local government.

You can see the police suppression in videos taken by local citizen journalists here:

===== April 20 =====

Hundreds of Villagers Hold Officials Hostage Over Vietnam Power Plant Plans

RFA: Hundreds of villagers in central Vietnam’s Binh Dinh province held five local officials hostage for a day before releasing them late on Friday to demand that authorities free more than a dozen people detained for holding an environmental protest, according to sources.

Residents of My Tho and My An communes, in Binh Dinh’s Phu My district, on Wednesday held a protest against what state media has reported are plans by Vietnam Trading Engineering Construction’s (Vietracimex) to construct a wind power plant.

The villagers blocked a local highway and threw sand at police over the plans, which they said are a cover for a titanium ore exploitation operation that they believe will destroy local forestland through pollution.

Authorities broke up the protest and detained 14 people for “disturbing public order.”

Early on Friday morning, some 500 people surrounded the local government office in My Tho commune and took five officials hostage, including the local ruling Communist Party chief, the party chairman, and three police officers, a villager told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The mob forced authorities to release the 14 people arrested in the earlier protest and eventually allowed the five hostages to go free around midnight on Friday, before returning to their homes, the villager said.

Public demonstrations are extremely rare in one-party Communist Vietnam, where dissent is not tolerated.

In April last year, farmers in Dong Tam commune, in the capital Hanoi’s My Duc district, detained dozens of police officers and officials during a week-long standoff over their claims that the government was seizing their farmland for the military-run Viettel Group—the country’s largest mobile phone operator—without adequately compensating them.

At the end of the standoff, Hanoi’s mayor pledged not to prosecute residents and to investigate their claims, but months later, the city’s Inspectorate determined that they had no right to the land and awarded it to the military.

Vietnam has also seen regular protests over the government’s handling of a toxic waste spill that occurred along the country’s central coast in April 2016, polluting more than 125 miles of coastline along four coastal provinces, killing an estimated 115 tons of fish, and leaving fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless.

Two months after the spill, Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged it was responsible for the release of the chemicals from its massive steel plant located at the deep-water port in Ha Tinh province’s Ky Anh district.

The company voluntarily paid U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate those affected by the spill, but the slow and uneven payout of the funds by the Vietnamese government has prompted ongoing demonstrations.

Note from Defend the Defenders: Defend the Defenders has learned that Authorities in Binh Dinh had released 14 residents detained on April 18 in exchange of four officials held by residents on April 20.


Appeal Hearing of Environmentalist Hoang Duc Binh Set on April 24

Defend the Defenders: The People’s Court of Vietnam’s central province of Nghe An will hold an appeal hearing of environmentalist Hoang Duc Binh on April 24, according to its letter sent to the activist’s lawyer.

The hearing will be started at 8 AM of the coming Tuesday, said the court’s announcement sent to Hanoi-based lawyer Ha Huy Son.

Binh, who is a vice president of the unsanctioned Viet Labor Movement, was kidnapped on May 15 last year by police in Dien Chau district when he travelled in a car with Catholic priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc from the Song Ngoc parish in Dien Chau district to Vinh city.

Later, police announced his arrest and charges of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties” under Article 330 and “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens” under Article 331 of the country’s 2015 Penal Code.

On February 6, the People’s Court of Dien Chau district found Hoang Duc Binh guilty and sentenced him to 14 years in prison in a move to halt his activism which aims to protect workers’ rights and protest the Taiwanese Formosa steel plant blamed for the environmental disaster in the central coastal region in 2016.

The court also sentenced Nguyen Nam Phong, the driver of Catholic priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc, to two years in prison for allegation of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties” as he rejected to open car’s doors when undercovered policemen kidnaped  Binh.

During the one-day trial two months ago, only the parents of Binh and the wife of Phong were allowed to enter the courtroom. Younger brothers of Binh and other relatives were detained when they were on their way to the court’s areas. Police brutally beat them and took them in custody where they were tortured and robbed before being released in late afternoon after the trial ended.

A group of four activists from Hanoi went to Vinh to support Binh and Phong, however, police detained them when they arrived in the city, beating them and deporting them back to Hanoi.

Since being arrested in May last year, Binh has been kept incommunicado and his family is allowed to provide him with some clothes and food but not meet with him. The family is permitted to provide food three times a month, with the value of the food being below VND50,000 ($2.2) for every time.

Binh and Phong are among many activists protesting the Taiwanese Formosa steel plant which discharged a huge amount of toxic industrial waste into the central coastal region and massively killed fisheries in April 2016. On April 12, the People’s Court of Ha Tinh, where the Formosa steel mill is located, sentenced Tran Thi Xuan to nine years in prison and five years under house arrest on allegation of subversion.

It was reported that security forces in Ha Tinh are striving to arrest Mai Van Tam, a member of the unsanctioned Brotherhood for Democracy, who is active in assisting local fishermen affected by the environmental disaster caused by Formosa. Police have summoned him for questioning about his peaceful and legal activities.

It is likely the People’s Court of Nghe An will uphold the sentences of Binh and Phong given the fact that in recent years, many Vietnamese activists have been sentenced to lengthy imprisonment.

Vietnam has convicted nine activists so far in April, giving them a total 89 years in prison and many years of probation after serving their jail sentences.

Since the begining of 2018, Vietnam has imprisoned 19 activists with a total 156 years and six months in prison and 46 years under house arrest, eight of them from the unregistered Brotherhood for Democracy.

===== April 21 =====

Four Activists of Brotherhood for Democracy Convicted on Subversion Appeal

Defend the Defenders:Four out of six activists convicted on subversion in a trial on April 5 have challenged the court’s decision, Defend the Defenders has learned.

On April 5, the People’s Court of Hanoi held the first-instance hearing of prominent human rights attorney Nguyen Van Dai, Protestor Nguyen Trung Ton, engineer Pham Van Troi, enterpreneur Nguyen Bac Truyen, veteran journalist and labor activist Truong Minh Duc, and English teacher Le Thu Ha on allegation of “carrying out attempts to overthrow the people’s administration” under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code.

During the one-day trial, the court found the activists members of the unsanctioned organization Brotherhood for Democracy guilty and sentenced them to a total 66 years in prison and 17 years under house arrest afterward.

In their last words before the court announced their decision, the activists affirmed their innocences, saying their activities were peaceful and in line with the country’s 2013 Constitution and Vietnam’s commitments to international treaties.

Mr. Dai, who received the highest sentence of 15 years in jail and five years of probation, and Ms. Ha, who was given nine years in prison and three years under house arrest, are likely unwilling to appeal the court’s decision.

Mr. Ton and Mr. Duc, each received 13 years in prison and four years of probation, and Mr. Truyen, sentenced to 11 years in prison and three years under house arrest, as well as Pham Van Troi, who was given to seven years in prison and one year of probation, were set to have submitted their appeals to the Supreme People’s Court.

The appeal hearing will be carried out by the Higher People’s Court of Hanoi in coming months.

Mr. Dai and his assistant Ha were arrested on December 16, 2015 while the four others were detained on July 30 last year. The five men were former prisoners of conscience and senior members of the Brotherhood for Democracy, the main target of Vietnam’s ongoing crackdown on local dissent.

Last week, Vietnam imprisoned three members of the online pro-democracy group namely Nguyen Van Tuc, Tran Thi Xuan and Vu Van Hung. The first two were convicted on subversion and sentenced to 13 years and nine years in jail, respectively while the last one was charged with “inflicting injuries” in a trumped-up politically case and sentenced to one year in prison.

Authorities in the central province of Ha Tinh are seeking to imprison Mai Van Tam, a key member of the organization in the central region. He is summoned to a local police station many times for questioning his peaceful and legal activities which aim to promote human rights and democracy as well as protect environment in the province heavily affected by the industrial waste discharge of the Taiwan-invested steel plant.

Several years ago, Tam and Nguyen Trung Truc, spokesman of the Brotherhood for Democracy, were kidnapped by undercovered policemen who robbed them and tortuted them before released them in a remote area in forest. Mr. Truc was arrested last year and charged with subversion.

===== April 22 =====

Hanoi-based Intellectuals Detained after Visiting Dong Tam

Defend the Defenders: On April 21, authorities in Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi detained a group of local intellectuals in a trumped-up traffic case during their visit to residents in Dong Tam commune, the localitlocality for keeping around 40 state officials in hostage last year in a land dispute case.

The group consists of Dr. Nguyen Quang A, considered as one of the leading dissenting figures in the country, retired police Colonel Nguyen Dang Quang, and veteran writer Nguyen Nguyen Binh, a daughter of retired Major General Nguyen Trong Vinh. They visited the commune in the morning of Saturday.

The group returned to Hanoi’s center afternoon by their own car. However, they were chased by a group of thugs at a location about few kilometers from the commune. One of the thugs stopped their car and knoked down his motor in front of the vehicle, claiming the car hit his motorbike.

Few seconds later, traffic policemen as well as other police and militia came and launched investigation the “accident” case. Police requested the intellectuals to step out of their car and intended to take the car to a local police station.

Being informed about the trouble facing the guests, residents of Dong Tam commune came and blocked the moves of police.

After a long dispute, police took the car and requested the guests to the building of the Phuc Lam commune’s People’s Committee where they held the intellectuals until late evening.

In order to avoid other troubles, residents of Dong Tam asked the guests to return to their commune to stay overnight there.

In the morning of Sunday, being escorted by Dong Tam residents, the guests safely returned in Hanoi’s center, escaping the trick carried out by the city’s security forces.

In mid April last year, residents in Dong Tam comune held in hostage around 40 state officials, including 38 police commandos who were sent to the commune to suppress local citizens after police in My Duc district brutally beat retired official Le Dinh Kinh and detained a dozen of others.

The hostage crise ended one week later as local residents agreed to release the officials and policemen after Chairman Nguyen Duc Chung of the Hanoi People’s Committee promised to launch an investigation in a land dispute case to settle the case. The dispute started many years ago as Hanoi’s authorities took a large area of rice field from Dong Tam and gave the land to the military-run Viettel Group for property development, saying the land belongs to the army.

Few week ago, the army admitted that the disputed land belongs to the villagers and returned it to the owners.

Meanwhile, in order to prevent activists from going to Dong Tam to attend a party to mark the land dispute crisis, authorities of Hanoi are deploying undercovered policemen to their private residences to place them under house arrest.

Land grabbing is problematic in Vietnam where all land belongs to the state and local residents have only right to use it. The central government and local governemtns are authorized to seize any land from citizens for socio-economic development without paying adequate compensation.

In many localities, authorities have grabbed local residents’ land at very low compensation prices and give it to property and industrial developers at prices much higher.

Thousands of farmers losing their land in that way are gathering in big cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to demand for justice. The land petitioners are treated like second-class residents by the government. They are living in streets and house with cheap renting fees, being subjects of torture and detention by security forces.