Vietnam: Crackdown on Peaceful Dissent Intensifies

New Wave of Arrests Ahead of the 13th Party Congress

Human Rights Watch, Press release

New York, June 19, 2020

The Vietnamese government is intensifying a crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents ahead of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 13th party congress scheduled for January 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have arrested and convicted numerous people for political crimes between late 2019 and June 2020.

Authorities across the country have detained and charged members of the Independent Journalists Association, a member of the human rights group Brotherhood for Democracy, and several other independent writers and activists. Courts have also convicted several previously detained dissidents and sentenced them to significant prison time.

“Vietnam is clamping down hard on dissent this year, and other countries need to speak up,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam’s allies and trading partners should be complaining about these new cases to Hanoi and demanding that the authorities release these political prisoners.”

The party congress, held every five years and during which the party’s top leadership meets to select the next set of Vietnam’s leaders, is one of the most important political events in the one-party state. In the past, Vietnamese authorities have rounded up dissidents and activists to ensure that the congress appears to run smoothly and without any dissident or opposition voices. Human Rights Watch knows of at least 150 people convicted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression or association and currently in prison. At least 15 others have been charged but not yet put on trial.

Among the troubling arrests of members of the Independent Journalists Association, Ho Chi Minh City police arrested Nguyen Tuong Thuy in May and Le Huu Minh Tuan in June, apparently for their affiliation with the association. The president of the organization, Pham Chi Dung, had been arrested in November, apparently in connection to his opposition to the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement. All three were charged with spreading anti-state propaganda under article 117 of the penal code.

The Independent Journalists Association was founded in July 2014 to promote media freedom and democracy. Members have contributed commentary pieces for the association’s website Viet Nam Thoi Bao (Vietnam Times), participated in anti-China and pro-environment protests, supported political prisoners and fellow activists, and attended human rights-related events. In the past, the authorities have subjected the group to intrusive surveillance, harassment, intimidation, house arrest, travel bans, detention, and interrogation.

“Government documents in Vietnam typically contain letterhead with the words ‘independence-freedom-happiness’ – but with these cases we see that anyone who exercises independence has their freedom and happiness taken away,” Sifton said.

On March 19, 2020, the Thanh Nien newspaper reported that police in Gia Lai province arrested three people – named Kung, Jur, and Lup – for their affiliation with Ha Mon, a Catholic group not approved by the government. The charges against them are not clear. Previously, the authorities charged those who were arrested for their affiliation with Ha Mon with the vague crime of “undermining national unity.”

On June 13, the police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Huynh Anh Khoa (also known as Nino Huynh), the moderator of a Facebook group that discusses Vietnamese economic, social, and political issues. He was charged with “abusing the rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interest of the state” under article 331 of the penal code. Another moderator of the group, Nguyen Dang Thuong, has also reportedly been arrested, but it remains unclear if he has been charged.

In April, police in Nghe An province arrested a former political prisoner, Tran Duc Thach, for his alleged affiliation with Brotherhood for Democracy and charged him with subversion.

Brotherhood for Democracy was founded in April 2013 by the dissident Nguyen Van Dai and fellow activists, with a stated goal “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.” The group provides a network for activists both in and outside Vietnam who campaign for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.

Seven members of the group – Truong Minh Duc, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Pham Van Troi, Tran Thi Xuan, Nguyen Van Tuc, and Nguyen Trung Truc – are serving long prison terms for “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the penal code. Two other members, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha, were sent directly from prison to exile in Germany. The Vietnamese authorities see any attempt of dissidents or activists to work together or form groups to advocate for human rights and democracy as a threat to the government.

Police of Dak Nong province arrested Dinh Van Phu in January; police of Hau Giang province arrested Dinh Thi Thu Thuy in April; and Hanoi police arrested Pham Chi Thanh (also known as Pham Thanh – Ba Dam Xoe), a writer, in May. All three have been accused of writing and posting on Facebook and other internet platforms views contrary to the party and state and publishing material that opposes the government under article 117 of the penal code.

Three other dissidents, Ma Phung Ngoc Phu, Phan Cong Hai, and Chung Hoang Chuong, were put on trial individually in April and May, convicted, and sentenced to between nine months and five years in prison for their posts on Facebook critical of the government under articles 331 and 117 of the penal code.

“Vietnam has basically made it a crime to use the internet or social media platforms to voice opinions or engage in debate,” Sifton said. “Concerned governments – and social media companies – should be speaking up.”