Three activists in Vietnam are to stand trial Tuesday on charges of “causing public disorder,” which rights groups say are politically motivated and part of the authoritarian state’s move to silence dissent.
Bloggers Bui Thi Minh Hang and Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, and Hoa Hao Buddhist sect follower Nguyen Van Minh, will be tried in the People’s Court of southern Dong Thap province and could face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
Authorities arrested the trio in February 2014 and accused them of causing public disorder by creating “serious obstruction to traffic,” but rights groups say that the communist government had fabricated the charges to punish them for their activism.
“The Vietnamese government is now resorting to bogus traffic offenses to criminally prosecute activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Hang, Quynh, and Minh were among a group of 21 activists and Hoa Hao Buddhists taken into custody on Feb. 11 while on their way to visit the home of rights lawyer Nguyen Bac Truyen’s wife in southern Vietnam’s Dong Thap province, two days after Truyen was taken into custody in a massive police operation.
Fellow activists and family members say Hang, Quynh, Minh, and the other 18 supporters were “ambushed” and beaten by Lap Vo district police when they came to investigate the raid on the home of Truyen’s wife.
Eighteen of those held were released the next day, but Hang, Quynh, and Minh remained in the hands of authorities and staged a weeks-long hunger strike in protest.
Pressured to make incriminating testimonies
Five of the activists, Phan Duc Phuoc, Nguyen Vu Tam, To Van Manh, Bui Thi Diem Thuy, and Do Thi Thuy Trang, were brought in later for questioning by police and pressured to make incriminating testimonies against Hang.
They later confirmed that they had been “forced to say what [police] wanted” and said that some of their testimonies had been made up by the authorities, Hang’s lawyer Tran Nhu Nam said earlier.
Rights groups point to this case as an example of Vietnam’s continued lack of respect for international human rights norms.
“The harassment, arbitrary arrest, and unjust prosecution [of the three] follow an all-too-familiar script that illustrates Vietnam’s failure to comply with its international human rights obligations,” said Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) President Karim Lahidji.
“The authorities should recognize this case is not worth the international ridicule it will cause and drop the charges immediately,” Robertson said.
Hang is a prominent blogger, known for being an outspoken critic of China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea it disputes with Vietnam.
Minh is a Hoa Hao Buddhist, a sect indigenous to Vietnam with approximately 2 million followers nationwide.
The communist government officially recognizes the sect but imposes harsh controls, including imprisonment on dissenting Hoa Hao groups who do not follow the state-sanctioned branch.
Vietnam, which is a member of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, has come under constant international criticism for its harassment and jailing of bloggers and government critics.
“Vietnam got a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, but this hasn’t ended the repression of human rights activists in the country,” Robertson said.
The international community should pressure the Vietnamese government to free the three activists and the dozens of human rights defenders who remain incarcerated, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders [OMCT] Secretary General Gerald Staberock said.
Vietnam has also drawn criticism for alleged abuses on religious freedom.
Last month, Heiner Bielefeldt, a special U.N. envoy on a mission to Vietnam, accused the country’s authoritarian government of “serious violations” of religious freedom and said police harassed and intimidated people he had wanted to meet in the course of his investigations.
Approximately 150 to 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam simply for exercising their basic rights, activist groups say.
U.S. Republican Senator John McCain in a recent visit to Hanoi stressed the need for Vietnam to improve its human rights record for any lifting of a U.S. lethal arms embargo on the Southeast Asian country.
“How much we can do in this regard…. depends greatly on additional action by Vietnam on human rights,” he said