Vietnamese human rights activists and foreign diplomats voiced shock and concern this week over Wednesday’s arrest of dissident lawyer and blogger Nguyen Van Dai on charges of conducting “propaganda against the state.”
Dai, 46, was taken into custody by more than two dozen police officers one week after masked assailants beat him and other activists in what he called a reprisal for educating members of the public about their human rights.
Dai’s arrest came as a surprise and “disappointment” to many in Vietnam’s human rights community, blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Friday.
“Vietnam had just joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it looked like Vietnam was relaxing and showing signs of progress toward democracy and human rights,” said Chenh, who was named Netizen of the Year for 2013 by the Paris-based press freedoms group Reporters Without Borders.
Chenh noted that the arrest came just a month before a scheduled meeting of the National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which is held once every five years and is often preceded by a crackdown on dissent.
“This was a warning from the government,” he said.
“Vietnam has made commitments with the international community with regard to human rights, but they still continue to arrest people,” Chenh said.
“There has been no improvement at all in the government’s behavior,” he said.
Before his arrest, Dai—a well-known rights lawyer and former political prisoner who occasionally writes blog posts for RFA—had been on his way to meet with representatives of the European Union, which had held a bilateral human-rights dialogue with Vietnam the day before, Dai’s wife Vu Min Khan told RFA.
“He went to see the EU representatives because they had already arranged the meeting ,” Khan said.
“There were people outside who followed him, but we had seen them before so we thought this was normal. That’s why I was so surprised when they read the arrest order,” she said.
“Dai has good relations with other countries’ diplomats. That’s why the government was worried. That’s why they decided to arrest him,” she said.
Dai’s arrest while on his way to meet EU representatives shows that Vietnam’s government feels it can safely ignore public opinion both at home and around the world, Hanoi-based activist Truong Van Dung told RFA.
“They have defied everyone,” Dung said.
“Lawyer Dai has great influence both inside and outside the country, which is why they were worried and why they felt they had to stop him at any cost,” he said.
In a statement Thursday, Bruno Angelet, head of the European Union delegation to Vietnam, joined ambassadors to Vietnam from EU member states in voicing “serious concern” over Dai’s arrest.
“The decision to arrest and prosecute Mr. Nguyen Van Dai is particularly disappointing as it happened on the day of the annual EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Hanoi,” the statement said.
In accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party, all persons enjoy a “fundamental right” to hold opinions and peacefully express them, the statement said.
Call for reforms
Earlier this week, New York-based Human Rights Watch had called for the EU to “press for concrete and measurable improvements on human rights” ahead of its bilateral dialogue with Vietnam in Hanoi—the outcome of which it said should be made public.
Human Rights Watch said that essential reforms include ending politically motivated trials and convictions, the release of political prisoners, guarantees on freedom of association and labor rights, and religious freedom.
It said that authorities in Vietnam appear to have changed tactics from arrests to intimidation and violence, with assaults against bloggers and rights activists worsening significantly during 2015, adding that the country still holds at least 130 political prisoners.
Last month, lawyers Tran Thu Nam and Le Van Luan, who had advised the family of a young man who died in police custody, were brutally attacked in Hanoi by a group of thugs wearing masks, leaving them bloody and bruised.
At the time, Dai told RFA that the government may have ordered the attack to set an example for others who might try to challenge the authorities.
Reported by KaLynh Ngo and Tien Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Richard Finney.