In Vietnam, Seeking Basic Rights Is No Picnic in the Park

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Blogger Nguyen Hoang Vi’s sister Nguyen Thao Chi (L) had three teeth knocked out by security forces and mother Nguyen Thi Cuc (R) had her forehead burned with a cigarette.
Photos by VRNs/Human Rights Watch

Organizing picnics in one party communist state Vietnam is no walk in the park, as some human rights activists have painfully discovered.

Last weekend, the blogger activists and their friends and relatives tried to break new ground by holding picnics in public parks to discuss human rights issues but ended up being beaten, interrogated and arrested by police or thugs they claimed were hired by the authorities.

One of them said she was socked so hard in the mouth that she lost three of her teeth. To add insult to injury, a policeman stubbed out his burning cigarette on the forehead of her protesting mother.

Several bloggers were also placed under house arrest to prevent them from attending the oudoor picnics, which were organized online for mostly young Vietnamese to meet and discuss the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in three main cities -- Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang.

If the activists thought they were innovative, the Vietnamese authorities, who suppress virtually all forms of political dissent, were equally ingenious.

In Ho Chi Minh City, police sent workers to cut down branches of trees at the April 30 Park outside Independence Palace so people could not sit in the shade on a very hot day. Workers in blue uniforms were sent to spray water on spotlessly clean pathways and sidewalks so that participants had to move from where they were seated.

In Nha Trang, police and members of the Communist Youth League occupied Bach Dang Park where activists planned to meet and held their own picnic with loudspeakers. Barbed wire was deployed around the park and police were seen hitting the rights-seeking picnic participants with sticks and steel bars.

“Why is the Vietnamese government afraid of allowing its citizens to gather in parks to discuss human rights?,” asked Brad Adams, Asia director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

“Vietnam has ratified international human rights treaties and there is a vibrant discussion about how to incorporate rights into a new constitution, yet people who want to discuss this subject face harassment, intimidation, house arrest, and physical assaults,” he said in a statement.

Protest note

Gracphi: RFAAmnesty International, the London-based global rights group, has written a protest note to Vietnam's Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang, expressing grave concern over the abuses inflicted on the peaceful human rights picnic participants.

"Amnesty International is deeply concerned about the use of unnecessary force by the Vietnamese authorities against those who were arrested and beaten, as well as the harassment and other measures taken to prevent the peaceful picnics from going ahead," Amnesty's Asia Pacific Deputy Director Isabelle Arradon said in a statement.

Amnesty and global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders have called on the Vietnamese government to launch investigations into the violent incidents and take action against those responsible for them.

"We firmly condemn this deliberate police violence against news providers and we are very disturbed to see that such unacceptable violence seems to be the automatic and systematic response from the authorities to any attempt to use freedom of expression," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

"The authorities should take firm and exemplary disciplinary measures against the police officers responsible for this violence," it said.

In fact, Amnesty said the physical attacks of the kind inflicted on blogger Nguyen Hoang Vi's sister Nguyen Thao Chi and mother Nguyen Thi Cuc may be construed as "torture" under the International  Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a state party.

The two had gone to a police station in Tan Phu district in Ho Chi Minh citywhere Vi had been heldto retrieve her mobile phone and tablet computer that had been confiscated but were harassed and severely beaten.    

Chi was punched in the face and had three of her teeth knocked out and lost consciousness while Cuc was kicked and had a burning cigarette stubbed out on her face, rights and media groups said.

House arrest

Another blogger Pham Thanh Nghien, who has been under house arrest in the northern city of Haiphong since her release in September 2012 after four years in prison, tried to show her support for the human rights picnic movement by organizing a picnic in her own garden with her mother.

But when she began reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights out loud, she and her 77-year-old mother were attacked by the police officers responsible for keeping them under surveillance.

"We all know that we were born with human rights but our rights are violated in Vietnam everyday," Nghien, who was among those who organized the picnics, told RFA's Vietamese Service. "We can't make changes to our society, improve our lives if we don't understand human rights that we should enjoy."

The irony is that Vietnam is committing the rights abuses even as it bids for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, rights groups say.

Last month, Vietnamese government security agents bundled a local activist from his home and held him for five hours to prevent him from meeting U.S. officials in Hanoi for their annual human rights dialogue with their Vietnamese counterparts.

Convictions rising

The number of criminal convictions of peaceful protesters in Vietnam is also rising.

In 2012, at least 40 people are known to have been convicted and sentenced to prison in trials that did not meet international due process and fair trials standards, according to Human Rights Watch.

Alarmingly, it said, at least 40 more people were convicted in political trials in just the first six weeks of 2013.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are moving to pass legislation that blocks non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam until human rights issues there improve and that denies Vietnam a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

"[V]ietnamese officials have brought their harassment of religious leaders, political dissidents, and student activists to new, draconian levels,” laments Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who this week signed on as lead cosponsor of the Vietnam Human Rights Act.

Despite the relentless crackdown by the authorities, Vietnamese rights activists say they are going to push ahead with their efforts to hold public discussions on human rights.

“Vietnam is a party to human rights treaties and is even running for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council, but the authorities are so scared of public discussions of human rights that they detain and assault their own citizens to stop them,” Human Rights Watch's Adams said.

"Now might be a good time for Vietnam’s leaders to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to understand the rights that the Vietnamese people are demanding.”


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