Vietnam Human Rights Defenders’ Weekly Report for February 22-28, 2021: Hanoi Police Extend Pre-trial Detention of Human Rights Defender Nguyen Thi Tam
Defend the Defenders | February 28, 2021
The Security Investigation Agency under the Hanoi Police Department has extended pre-trial detention of human rights defender and land right activist Nguyen Thi Tam for further four months, increasing the investigation period to 12 months after arresting her on June 24 last year on charge of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the Criminal Code.
Mrs. Tam, former prisoner of conscience, has been held incommunicado since being arrested last year. She has not been permitted to meet her relatives and lawyer so far. She was detained for her effort to object land grabbing of Hanoi’s authorities in her Duong Noi commune, Ha Dong district, and her human rights advocacy, especially in the land seizure in Dong Tam commune and the bloody raid of thousands of riot policemen in the locality in January 9, 2020.
Three other human rights defenders in Duong Noi who were also arrested on the same day on the same charge have also been kept incommunicado. While the investigation against former prisoner of conscience Can Thi Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu ended and their case was transferred to the People’s Court of Hoa Binh province, the pre-trial detention of Mrs. Theu’s eldest son Trinh Ba Phuong likely has been extended but their family has not been informed.
In its response to the UN’s Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights on February 4 regarding the arbitrary detentions of five human rights defenders Pham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Nguyen Thi Tam, Trinh Ba Phuong, and Trinh Ba Tu who were arrested and charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” due to their supports to Dong Tam land petitioners and reports about the bloody raid in the commune, Vietnam’s communist regime affirmed that Dong Tam land petitioners were responsible for the incident and the five human rights defenders were investigated not for their activism but their violations of the country’s law. During the raid, police killed communal leader Le Dinh Kinh and arrested about 30 land petitioners in the commune, accusing six of them of killing three police officers and the remaining of “resisting on-duty state officials.” In the first-instance hearing in mid-September last year, the People’s Court of Hanoi convicted them, giving death sentence to two land petitioer named Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc, life imprisonment to Le Dinh Doanh, lengthy imprisonment of between 12 and 16 years to three others on charge of “murder” of the three police officers without solid evidence for their lethal acts and the facts proving the officers’ death. The court also sentenced eight land petitioners to between three and six years in prison, and gave probation sentences for the 15 remaining land petitioners for “resisting on-duty state officials.”
After the trial, six of them have appealed and the Supreme People’s Court has decided to open the appeal hearing of seven land petitioners on March 8-10. The Higher People’s Court in Hanoi will carry out the hearing.
Many political observers said that there is a little hope for the land petitioners to have lighter sentences or be freed after the appeal hearing since the conservative figures of the regime remain in the country’s leadership for the next five years after the 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party which ended on February 1. General Secretary cum President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Minister of Public Security, who were responsible for the bloody attack in Dong Tam in early January last year, were re-elected to the party’s Politburo while Chief of the Supreme People’s Court Nguyen Hoa Binh, who has important roles in the first-instance hearing, was elected to the Politburo, the most powerful body of the regime.
===== February 23 =====
Critics Roll Their Eyes as Vietnam Applies to Join UN Human Rights Council
RFA: Vietnam on Monday announced its candidacy to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, but claims by the country’s foreign minister that the one-party communist state fully protects “human rights and fundamental freedoms” drew swift scorn and disbelief from rights experts.
Rights and freedoms can be protected and promoted only when a country defends itself against epidemic disease, foreign minister Pham Binh Minh told a high-level meeting of the Geneva-based Rights Council’s 46th Regular Session.
“[This] is the best way to ensure that each and every member of the society can fully enjoy their human rights,” Pham said, quoted by Vietnamese state media.
“We continue to put emphasis on the protection and promotion of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of our people, even in this most difficult of times.”
Membership in the UN Human Rights Council is being sought by Vietnam for the 2023-2025 term, Pham said, adding that Vietnam has been “endorsed as the ASEAN candidate for this post” in competition with candidates from other countries in the U.N.’s Asia-Pacific representational grouping.
Nguyen Van Dai–a Vietnamese lawyer and democracy advocate now living in Germany—voiced surprise and concern at Pham’s announcement, calling Vietnam Southeast Asia’s most oppressive state.
“Surely, Vietnam can’t run for [membership on] the Human Rights Council,” Nguyen told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “For the last four years, Vietnam has become Southeast Asia’s most oppressive country, even replacing Burma as the country holding the most political prisoners.”
“In addition, Vietnam’s trade partners like the European Union, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United States, and Australia have frequently called on it to release the activists now being held in Vietnam’s prisons, and to improve its record on human rights,” he said.
In an annual report examining the rights records of countries around the world, the U.S. State Department this year said that Vietnam had been responsible in 2019 for “significant” violations of human rights, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearance; torture by government agents; [and] arbitrary arrests and detentions.”
Restrictions on freedom of expression on the internet and in the press were also seen, along with “substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association,” the State Department said.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent deteriorated sharply last year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party Congress in January.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 175 out of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Around 25 journalists and bloggers are being held in Vietnam’s jails, “where mistreatment is common,” the Paris-based watchdog group said.
Other countries widely condemned for rights abuses at home, and currently serving as member states on the Council, include China, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, and Eritrea.
The United States, which left the Rights Council in June 2018 after objecting to what then-President Trump called the group’s unfair and disproportionate targeting of Israel in Council resolutions, has meanwhile now expressed its intention to return—first as an observer in the next two-year term and eventually as a full member.
Government defense rejected
Vietnamese rights activist Pham Le Vuong Cac meanwhile rejected a government defense submitted to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on Feb. 4 of actions taken by authorities following a deadly land clash a year earlier at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi, in which village elder Le Dinh Khinh was shot dead by police.
Kinh, 84, was killed during the early-morning Jan. 9, 2020 raid on the village by 3,000 security officers intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site about 25 miles south of the capital, Hanoi.
Le’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, were later sentenced to death for murder in connection with the deaths of three police officers who were killed in the clash when they were attacked with petrol bombs and fell into a concrete shaft while running between two houses.
They were among a group of 29 villagers tried for their roles in the incident. Other punishments handed out by the court included a life sentence and other sentences ranging from six years to 15-months’ probation.
Writing on Feb. 4 in response to concerns expressed by the Special Procedures Branch of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Vietnam’s permanent mission to U.N. offices in Geneva said the trials had been handled as “a normal criminal case,” with the rights of defendants ensured and all procedures carried out according to Vietnamese law.
Authorities’ mass arrest of Dong Tam villagers, including Kinh’s wife Can Thi Theu, and of independent journalist Pham Doan Trang, who had posted articles about the deadly raid, had “completely violated international standards of human rights,” though, Pham Le Vuong Cac said.
“It’s nothing new for Vietnam to argue against concerns criticizing its detention of activists. It has been the government’s policy for a long time not to be silent, but to speak up to assert its own view of things,” he said.
“When a country becomes a member of the U.N., it should comply with the provisions of international law,” Pham said.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to farming families displaced by development.
===== February 25 =====
Appeal Hearing of Six Dong Tam Land Petitioners Scheduled on March 8-10
Defend the Defenders: The Higher People’s Court in Hanoi will hold the appeal hearing on March 8-10 for six land petitioners from Dong Tam commune who were convicted of “murders” and “resisting on-duty state officials” at the first-instance hearing in mid-September last year.
Some land petitioners’ lawyers have received a notice from Vietnam’s Supreme People’s Court with the content above while other attorneys and the land petitioners’ families have yet received such kind of document from the court, Defend the Defenders has learned.
Accordingly, Mr. Le Dinh Cong and Mr. Le Dinh Chuc appealed for their death penalty while Mr. Le Dinh Doanh appealed for his life imprisonment. Cong and Chuc are sons of late Dong Tam communal leader Le Dinh Kinh who was shot to death by Vietnam’s security forces during the raid of about 3,000 riot policemen in the commune in the early hours of January 9 last year. Doanh is Mr. Kinh’s grandchild. The trio were convicted of pouring gasoline and burned three police officers and causing their death although there is no solid evidence for their attack and the death of the officers.
Mr. Bui Viet Hieu and Mr. Nguyen Quoc Tien, who were convicted of murders and sentenced to 16 years and 13 years in prison, respectively, as well as Ms. Bui Thi Noi, who was sentenced to six years in prison for “resisting on-duty state officials” also appealed for their imprisonment sentences.
Talking to Radio Free Asia (RFA), Saigon-based lawyer Dang Dinh Manh, who provides legal assistance for four out of the six land petitioners, said he continues to demand for re-investigation because the original investigation had many mistakes and shortcomings.
Many political observers said that there is a little hope for the land petitioners to have lighter sentences or be freed after the appeal hearing since the conservative figures of the regime remain in the country’s leadership for the next five years after the 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party which ended on February 1. General Secretary cum President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Minister of Public Security, who were responsible for the bloody attack in Dong Tam in early January last year, were re-elected to the party’s Politburo while Chief of the Supreme People’s Court Nguyen Hoa Binh was elected to the Politburo, the most powerful body of the regime.
In its response to the UN’s Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights on February 4 regarding the arbitrary detentions of five human rights defenders Pham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Nguyen Thi Tam, Trinh Ba Phuong, and Trinh Ba Tu who were arrested and charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” due to their supports to Dong Tam land petitioners and reports about the bloody raid in the commune, Vietnam’s communist regime affirmed that Dong Tam land petitioners were responsible for the incident and the five human rights defenders were investigated not for their activism but their violations of the country’s law.
Ms. Trang was arrested on October 6 last year, a few hours after the 24th annual human rights dialogue between the US and Vietnam while the four remaining activists were detained on June 24 of the same year. All of them have been held incommunicado since their arrests.
According to a notice of the People’s Court of Hoa Binh province, the case files of Mrs. Can Thu Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu have been handed over to the court after the province’s Police Department completed the investigation in the case.
Amnesty International: Hackers attacking Vietnam dissidents
AP: Amnesty International says it has found that a hacking group known as Ocean Lotus has been staging more spyware attacks on Vietnamese human rights activists in the latest blow to freedom of speech in the communist-ruled country.
The human rights group said Wednesday that Amnesty Tech’s Security Lab found evidence of the hacking attempts in phishing emails sent to two dissidents, one in the Philippines and one in Germany.
Cybersecurity firms earlier identified hacking attempts by Ocean Lotus targeting dissidents, governments and companies across Southeast Asia. The hackers are suspected of having ties to Vietnam’s government, which has been cracking down on dissent.
Amnesty urged the Vietnamese government to investigate.
The report said that blogger and pro-democracy activist Bui Thanh Hieu was targeted with spyware at least four times between February 2018 and December 2019. He left Vietnam and has lived in Germany since 2013. It said another blogger based in Vietnam, who was not named due to fears for their safety, was targeted three times last year
A Philippines-based nongovernmental organization, the Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment, or VOICE, was targeted by hackers in April 2020, the report said.
It said former staff and volunteers for VOICE were harassed, prevented from traveling and had their passports confiscated when they returned to Vietnam.
The Amnesty report also said the hacking efforts involved emails pretending to share an important document with a link to download a file.
An analysis of the phishing emails indicated they were generated by Ocean Lotus, based on the tools and techniques they used, it said. The hacking targets Mac OS, Android and Windows operating systems.
“More recently Ocean Lotus was found to have created fake online media websites based on content automatically gathered from legitimate news websites,” the report said.
Vietnam is one of the handful of the world’s remaining communist single-party states that tolerate no dissent.
Human rights groups have been urging Vietnam to cease its repressive activities towards critics, seen especially in severe punishments of bloggers.
According to the cybersecurity company Volexity, OceanLotus was identified as a Vietnam-based hacking group in 2015. The group is suspected of staging sophisticated, widespread digital surveillance and attack campaigns since 2013 against some Asian countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and many people and groups linked to the media and human rights groups.
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===== February 26 =====
Pre-trial Detention of Human Rights Defender Nguyen Thi Tam Extended for Further Four Months
Defend the Defenders: The Security Investigation Agency of the Hanoi Police Department has extended the investigation period of local human rights defender and land petitioner Nguyen Thi Tam to further four months, Defend the Defenders has learned from her family.
Her daughter Nguyen Thanh Mai told Defend the Defenders that the information came from her mother lawyer Le Dinh Viet who has received a notice from the police. It means Mrs. Tam cannot meet with her attorney and her family during the next four months. She has been held incommunicado since being arrested on June 24, 2020 on the allegation of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the Criminal Code for her advocacy for human rights and support for Dong Tam land petitioners.
Mrs. Tam is a land rights activist, fighting against the authorities of her commune Duong Noi grabbing the land of her family and people in her village since 2008. She was detained and held in pre-trial detention from June 11 until November 20, 2008. In 2014, she was re-arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison for “resisting on-duty state officials” while protesting land seizure.
After being released, she continues to appeal the land grabbing carried out by the Duong Noi commune’s authorities who seized the agricultural land of the local farmers to sell to property developers at prices much higher than the compensation price given to the farmers. In addition, she has also provided assistance for Dong Tam commune’s farmers whose land was also taken by the My Duc district authorities and given to the army’s Viettel company for property project development.
Also on June 24 last year, Hanoi police arrested Duong Noi-based human rights activist and land petitioner Trinh Ba Phuong on the same allegation. Mr. Phuong has also been held incommunicado since the arrest and it is likely the police extend his pre-trial detention. On the same day, police in Hoa Binh province arrested Phuong’s mother- former prisoner of conscience and land rights activist Can Thi Theu and his younger brother Trinh Ba Tu. Recently, the People’s Court of Hoa Binh province has informed their lawyers that their case’s investigation was completed and the investigation results were handed over to the court. It is likely the court will hold the first-instance hearing to try Mrs. Theu and her son on charge of “conducting anti-state propaganda” with potential imprisonment of between seven and 12 years in prison, even to 20 years.
Like Mrs.. Tam, Mrs. Theu and her two sons were arrested for their advocacy given to Dong Tam land petitioners and reports the bloody attack of around 3,000 riot policemen to the commune in the early hours of January 9, 2020 in which police shot dead Dong Tam communal leader Le Dinh Kinh and arrested more than 30 villagers with charges of “murder” and “resisting on-duty state officials.” In September last year, the People’s Court of Hanoi convicted two sons and one grandchild of Mr. Kinh and three others of “murder” for causing the deaths of three police officers during the raid although the authorities have not showed solid evidence of the farmers’ acts against the police as well as the remainings of the police officers. Two of them were sentenced to death, one with life imprisonment and the three others between 12 years and 16 years. Their appeal hearing is scheduled on March 8-10.
In its response to the UN’s Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights on February 4 regarding the arbitrary detentions of five human rights defenders Pham Doan Trang and four activists from Duong Noi who were arrested and charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” due to their supports to Dong Tam land petitioners and reports about the bloody raid in the commune, Vietnam’s communist regime affirmed that Dong Tam land petitioners were responsible for the incident and the five human rights defenders were investigated not for their activism but their violations of the country’s law.
The arrests of four human rights defenders in Duong Noi commune were part of the intensified crackdown on the local political dissidents and social activists prior to the 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam which ended on February 1 with many conservative senior officials being re-elected to the country’s leadership for the next five years, including General Secretary cum State President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Minister of Public Security To Lam who were responsible for the bloody attack in Dong Tam last year as well as the political persecution starting in late 2015.
According to Defend the Defenders’ statistics, Vietnam is holding at least 250 prisoners of conscience in severe living conditions in prison camps and detention facilities across the nation. Hanoi always denies holding prisoners of conscience but only law violators.
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