The United States and other signatories to a major free trade agreement between Pacific Rim countries should pressure Vietnam to drop proposed laws that would allow the authorities to expand a crackdown on critics of the one party communist government, a rights group said Friday.
Vietnam is using vague national security laws to stifle dissent, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement, adding that signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) must push Vietnam to halt legislation that would add even more penalties to its “already draconian criminal code.”
Twelve Pacific Rim countries—the U.S., Vietnam, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and Peru—signed the TPP on Oct. 5 after seven years of negotiations, agreeing to lower tariffs and establish a dispute settlement mechanism for trade.
Earlier this month, Vietnam’s public security minister General Tran Dai Quang announced that from June 2012 to November 2015 police had cracked down on 1,410 cases involving 2,680 people “who violated national security,” while more than 60 groups were “illegally formed” in the name of democracy and human rights.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the announcement of the arrests and acknowledgement that Vietnam’s government is targeting democracy and human rights groups “deeply troubling.”
“This suggests the government is massively overusing the country’s repressive national security laws to criminalize peaceful expression and persecute critics,” Adams said.
Human Rights Watch noted that Vietnam has a record of detaining people for long periods for alleged national security violations and urged the government to clarify the status of the 2,680 mentioned by General Quang, including their names, charges filed, convictions, and other details.
The group pointed to several “vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions” in Vietnam’s penal code used to imprison dissidents, including Article 79’s “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration,” Article 88’s “conducting propaganda against the state,” and Article 89’s “disrupting security”—which can be punished by death, and up to 20 and 15 years in jail, respectively.
Other provisions in the penal code target peaceful dissent, it said, including Article 258’s “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state,” and Article 245’s “causing public disorder,” as well as charges such as tax evasion.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s National Assembly—a rubber stamp parliament—is currently considering revising the country’s penal code and code of criminal procedure, and Human Rights Watch said proposed amendments allowing for harsher punishments “appear to be aimed at activists and critics.”
Proposed amendments would add harsher clauses to Article 109 (formerly Article 79) and Article 117 (formerly Article 88), according to Human Rights Watch, while Article 118 (formerly Article 89) would gain a provision subjecting anyone found guilty of taking “actions in preparation of committing this crime” to between one and five years in jail.
“Current laws are bad enough and often used arbitrarily by the government to silence critics,” Adams said.
“But to imprison someone for up to five years just because the government thinks they may speak out or organize dissent is simply absurd.”
Human Rights Watch noted that during TPP negotiations in 2014 and 2015, Vietnam released 14 bloggers and activists amid pressure from the U.S., though many others remain in police custody, some of whom have not been put on trial.
If the revised penal code is passed, the group said, labor activists convicted under Article 89 who were released from prison last year amid the negotiations could be rearrested by authorities simply based on concerns that they might help organize strikes.
Adams said that General Quang’s report suggests Vietnam will return to its policy of stamping out dissent now that the TPP is in place.
“It appears that the Vietnamese government played nice during TPP negotiations, but now that the agreement has been signed it is taking steps to tighten government control over critics,” he said.