Relatives and supporters of 17 jailed Vietnamese social activists have staged a protest march and candlelight vigil demanding their release, as a dozen nongovernmental groups wrote to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung seeking respect for civil liberties in the one-party communist state.
The protesters marched in front of government offices in the capital on Monday demanding freedom for the 17, most of them Catholics and all arbitrarily detained between August and December last year for their work in citizen journalism, environmental advocacy, exposing corruption, and defending human rights.
The march followed a special candlelight vigil on Sunday night by several thousand Catholics in Hanoi’s Thai Ha parish also demanding the release of the activists.
On Monday morning dozens of demonstrators wearing t-shirts that read, “My children are innocent,” protested for two hours before plainclothes police beat and dragged them away, according to Viet Tan, an organization banned in Vietnam that monitors human rights in the country.
The families of all 17 victims were represented at the protests, said a man named Phuong, a Catholic from Hanoi’s Thai Ha parish.
One protester, the father of detained activist Chu Manh Son, said demonstrators argued with police before a large number of policemen rounded them up and shut down the protest.
The protesters had wanted to submit a petition demanding the release of the 17 but were blocked by police personnel.
“Police are blocking everybody. No one can get in. The 30 of us are at the Government Bureau to submit a petition but the police are pushing us. We are arguing with them,” Son’s father told RFA at the height of the protests around 10:00 a.m.
“There are more police than protesters—five to one. There’s over 100 police and mobile police [special police]. Traffic around the Government Bureau was blocked,” he said a few hours later, after they were detained and questioned at the bureau’s public relations office in Ha Dong district.
“They told the driver to take them to the public relations office at No. 1 Ngo Thoi Nhiêm, Ha Dong district,” citizen journalist Duong Thi Xuan, who observed the protest, told RFA.
Some of them were interrogated for hours before they were released and asked to file separate petitions to the government over their protests.
“They told us to go back home to complete the petition papers individually in order to solve the problem,” said Do Van Pham, the uncle of another of the detained, Catholic blogger Le Van Son.
The 17, mostly from the Vinh and Thanh Hoa Catholic dioceses in northern Vietnam, were detained separately in Hanoi, Vinh, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang between August and December 2011.
Many of them have been held incommunicado or without access to a lawyer since their detention, rights groups have said.
Tensions between the government and the Catholic community—the second-largest religion in Vietnam, where religious activity remains under state control and is closely monitored—have led to unrest over church property and other issues in recent years.
Many of the 17 have not yet been brought to trial.
Those whose cases have been heard by the courts were sentenced under Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, which prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state,” or Article 79, which prohibits carrying out activities and forming organizations “aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”
The group includes four university students from Vinh—Chu Manh Son, Dau Van Duong, Tran Huu Duc, and Hoang Phong—sentenced in May for up to three and a half years in jail under Article 88 for distributing "anti-government" leaflets. Their families were not allowed to attend the court hearing.
The four had participated in volunteer activities including donating blood, helping orphans and natural disaster victims, and encouraging women not to have abortions, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Also among the 17 is outspoken blogger Ta Phong Tan, a Catholic former policewoman who is awaiting trial alongside two other well-known writers for articles they posted on the Free Journalists Club website.
Tan’s case drew international attention last month when her mother died after setting herself ablaze front of a municipal building in her home province of Bac Lieu.
The remaining activists among the 17 are Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, Le Van Son, Nguyen Van Duyet, Nong Hung Anh, Nguyen Van Oai, Nguyen Xuan Anh, Ho Van Oanh, Thai Van Dung, Tran Minh Nhat, Tran Vu An Binh, and Nguyen Dinh Cuong.
Representatives from 12 international rights groups including Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Prime Minister Dung on Monday calling for the immediate release of the 17 and the withdrawal of charges against them.
The activists “have simply sought to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association guaranteed under international law” and had been detained "arbitrarily," they said, calling Articles 79 and 88 “vague, ill-defined statutes.”
“We urgently call on your government to withdraw all charges against those who are held pending trial and for those who have been sentenced to be unconditionally exonerated,” they said.
Nine of the groups had signed a similar letter to the prime minister in March.
In July, Allen Weiner, a law professor at Stanford University in the U.S., filed a petition with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva on the activists’ behalf, challenging the legality of the detentions and calling on the U.N. to push Vietnam to release the activists.
Reported by Thanh Truc for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.