Vietnam rights lawyer barred from leaving country

Stopped at the airport, Vo An Dan and his family had hoped to seek asylum in the US.
By RFA Vietnamese
2022.09.28
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Vietnam rights lawyer barred from leaving country Vietnamese rights lawer Vo An Don is shown in an undated photo.
Facebook / Don An Vo

Updated at 12:58 p.m. EST on 2022-09-29

Vietnamese human rights lawyer Vo An Don and his family were stopped by police in Ho Chi Minh City this week from boarding a flight to New York, where they had hoped to apply for political asylum in the US, the well-known rights lawyer told RFA on Wednesday.

Don and other family members were barred from leaving Vietnam by police at Tan Son Nhat Airport at around 9:42 p.m. on Sept. 27, Don said, calling the action taken against him by authorities arbitrary and vindictive.

Don added that airport police told him he would need to contact immigration authorities in his home province of Phu Yen, on Vietnam’s south-central coast, for an explanation of the order barring his travel overseas.

He and his family were now on their way back to Phu Yen, Don said.

“I’ll work with the Phu Yen police tomorrow to find out why my departure was temporarily suspended,” Don said, saying that airport police had cited “security reasons” for blocking his departure in accordance with Article 36 of the Law on Entry and Exit for Vietnamese citizens.

According to Vietnamese law, citizens of the country have the right to travel domestically and overseas, Don said. “I’ll take legal action against them and file a request for compensation if they fail to give legitimate reasons for what they did,” he added.

“In the past, I used to work as a defense lawyer for ordinary, common people,” said Don, whose license to practice law was revoked in 2017 after he successfully defended the right to benefits of the surviving family members of a person who died in police custody.

“Since then I have only stayed at home and worked as a farmer. I have not been involved in any other cases or broken the law, and there is therefore no reason to say that I have been a threat to national security,” he said.

Don said he and his family had decided to seek asylum in the US because they were suffering harassment by Phu Yen authorities and economic hardship since he could no longer work as a lawyer.

The Washington-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) had secured advance funding for the family’s airfare, which was returned to the IOM when the family could no longer fly.

Don had taken his children out of school and given away many of his family’s belongings before trying to leave, and now has to buy many household appliances again, he said. He hopes his children’s schools will now allow them to return to class, he added.

'Prestige of the Party'

Requests for comment sent to the US Embassy, IOM offices in Vietnam and the Vietnam Immigration Department received no responses this week.

A Sept. 28 article in the Ministry of Public Security’s Public Security Newsletter said however that Don during his work as a lawyer had “damaged the prestige” of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party and government by posting stories on social media and speaking to members of the foreign press.

Speaking to RFA, Truong Minh Tam — a Vietnamese lawyer and human rights activist now living in Illinois — said that Phu Yen police had abused their authority by ordering the suspension of Don’s right to travel abroad.

“According to Article 37 of the Law on Exit and Entry of Vietnamese Citizens, only the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Public Security have that authority,” Tam said.

Also speaking to RFA, Vietnamese musician and political observer Tuan Khanh noted that Don had successfully brought a suit in 2014 against five Phu Yen police officers who caused the death of a citizen, Ngo Thanh Kieu, held in their custody.

This had likely made Don a target for provincial authorities’ revenge, Khanh said.

In a statement issued late on Wednesday, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the Vietnamese government's efforts to block Don's travel to the U.S. are yet another example of how it restricts the freedom of movement of activists based on what he called "vague claims" of national security.

"The reality is Hanoi doesn’t want Vo An Don traveling overseas where he could speak freely about the litany of harassment, discrimination and abuse he’s suffered because of his choices to represent politically sensitive clients in Vietnam’s kangaroo courts,” Robertson said. 

“Vietnam has forced Vo An Don to run a gauntlet of constant abuses, including harassment, threats, and legal retaliation ... This travel ban against Vo An Don and his family shows how the Vietnam government is prepared to use every dirty, abusive trick to silence the very few lawyers left in the country who dare stand up for the principle that everyone deserves legal representation.”

Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Richard Finney.

This story was updated to include comments from Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson.

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