UN Should Press Vietnam to Release Political Prisoners, Honor Rights Pledge: HRW

The rights group says Vietnam’s record has worsened, despite promises it made at its last UN review.

Delegates gather prior to the opening of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, May 18, 2018.

The United Nations Human Rights Council should press Vietnam to release all political prisoners and ensure the basic civil and political liberties of its citizens based on a pledge it made at the world body’s last review of its rights record, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday.

Vietnam has done little to honor its pledge in accepting 182 out of 227 recommendations from U.N. member states during its 2014 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), “and in some cases has made the situation worse,” HRW said in a submission to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) ahead of the country’s upcoming review, scheduled for January next year.

“Vietnam seems to be contending for the title of one of Asia’s most repressive governments,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement accompanying the submission.

“The Communist Party-controlled government systematically crushes any challenges to its actions and punishes any person or group it deems a threat to its absolute monopoly on power.”

HRW said that authorities in Vietnam regularly use “loosely interpreted provisions” of the country’s penal code and other laws to jail political and religious activists, noting that in the first seven months of 2018, the government convicted and imprisoned at least 27 rights campaigners.

Among the most high-profile cases of activists jailed in recent years is that of prominent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in June 2017 on charges of spreading “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the penal code, after she had blogged about human rights abuses and official corruption for more than a decade.

HRW, which has joined several rights groups in calling for Quynh’s release, noted in its statement that the blogger is currently carrying out a hunger strike in protest of abuses by prison staff against her.

In particular, the rights group highlighted Vietnam’s acceptance of recommendations to amend provisions related to national security in its penal code to comply with international law, but noted that its legislature instead passed a revised penal code in June last year that “extends even wider liability to rights bloggers and activists and those who assist them.”

“Instead of repealing or reforming its many abusive laws in line with U.N. recommendations, Vietnam did the opposite by revising them to apply more broadly,” Robertson said.

“Hanoi’s leaders are snubbing the U.N. review process, and it’s time member countries took them task for it.”

HRW also noted that Vietnam passed an “overly broad and vague” cyber security law last month that “severely restricts freedom of expression” online, and that the rights to freedom of assembly and association “have also been under attack” in the country, despite having agreed to recommendations on how to ensure those liberties at the 2014 UPR.

In its submission to the UPR, HRW provided several recommendations for Vietnam to improve its rights record, including that authorities immediately release all political prisoners, remove restrictions on internet usage, revise last month’s law on cyber security to bring it into compliance with international rights standards, and end the harassment of followers of disfavored religions.

The group also called for the establishment of an independent police complaints commission to investigate public grievances and provide oversight over the internal affairs of the authorities.

“Vietnam has a long history of trampling on rights while making weak excuses that it is upholding the rule of law,” Robertson said.

“Countries at the U.N. Human Rights Council have the evidence before them and should press Vietnam to end its systemic rights abuses.”

Protesters jailed

HRW’s submission came as a court in Vietnam jailed 10 people for between two to three-and-a-half years for their part in rare, large-scale protests over government plans to grant long-term leases to foreign companies operating in special economic zones (SEZs), according to state media reports.

The 10 were detained along with other protesters on June 10 in Ho Chi Minh City after attending what began the day before as a peaceful demonstration over the concession proposal, which had stirred public fears that the leases would go to Chinese-owned firms.

The official Voice of Vietnam Radio cited an indictment from the Binh Thuan provincial People’s Court, saying it had convicted the 10 on charges of “disturbing public order” after they were seen throwing bricks and rocks at security officers, damaging state vehicles, and causing traffic jams during the protest.

Last week, a court in Vietnam ordered the deportation of 32-year-old U.S. national William Nguyen after finding him guilty of the same charges for his part in the protest.

In tweets posted from the rallies, Nguyen had described clashes between citizens and the police, but state media said the American graduate student had also urged protesters to overrun police barricades as they marched toward the city center.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had traveled to Vietnam earlier this month and urged government officials to find a quick resolution to Nguyen’s case.

After demonstrations against the land concession proposal spread to several cities throughout Vietnam in June, authorities arrested dozens of protesters and have since sentenced six people to up to two-and-a-half years in prison. The government eventually tabled the proposal, pending “further research.”

Rights group Amnesty International estimates that at least 97 prisoners of conscience are currently held in Vietnam’s prisons, where many are subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.