Updated at 2.50 p.m. ET on 2013-7-24
U.S. President Barack Obama has received a deluge of requests from lawmakers, families of detained dissidents, and nongovernmental organizations to put human rights at the front and center of his talks with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang on Thursday.
But Sang, the second Vietnamese head of state to visit the White House since the former foes resumed relations nearly two decades ago, has said that concerns over human rights abuses in Vietnam should not dampen closer military and economic ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
"With almost 50 human rights defenders jailed this year alone and the government of Vietnam cracking down on freedoms of expression, assembly and association, we hope that you will take this meeting as an opportunity to stand up for the people of Vietnam," the families of 35 key political prisoners said in a letter to Obama this week.
They said that their loved ones had peacefully advocated for human rights and social justice in the interest of Vietnam, but for their efforts "they were violently arrested and interrogated, denied a fair trial, and are now arbitrarily detained."
"They are shut off from the outside world: refused family visitations, given paltry food and water, and denied any legal means to seek redress, said the letter, whose signatories include Nguyen Tri Dung—son of rights activist and popular blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who is on a month-long hunger strike to protest the actions of prison officials who tried to force him to make a false confession.
Hai, who is also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, is no stranger to Obama, who publicly raised his case last year in a speech marking World Press Freedom Day, saying Hai’s arrest “coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam."
Obama has said that that human rights would be a priority in his talks, according to four Democratic Representatives from California who met the president at the White House on Tuesday.
“I was gratified to hear the president ... express his concern over human rights violations in Vietnam and his understanding that now is the time to bring up these issues with President Sang,” one of the lawmakers, Alan Lowenthal, said in a statement.
“I feel that anyone who supports ending human rights violations in Vietnam has an important ally in the White House," he said.
The four lawmakers however said that increased bilateral engagement in trade and cultural exchanges have not led to improvements for basic rights in Vietnam.
This is a concern that is also shared by other U.S. lawmakers and rights activists who fear that the Obama administration may leave human rights on the sidelines in its efforts to forge closer ties with Vietnam on trade and military cooperation as China flexes its muscle while pressing Beijing's territorial claims on the disputed South China Sea.
Ahead of the summit talks, analysts say the Obama administration is keen to sign by the end of the year a trade pact which Washington has been negotiating with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations, while Hanoi wants a U.S. embargo on lethal weapons imposed since 1984 to be lifted.
A group of 40 Democratic and Republican lawmakers told Obama in a letter delivered to the White House this week that improvements in human rights should be a "condition" for Vietnam's participation in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
"Let’s put Vietnam on a course towards progress with respect to human rights … It is past time for us to make these demands,” one of the letter's signatories, Representative Ed Royce, a Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
“In Vietnam, the government continues to round up anyone who continues to speak the word 'democracy' or speak the words 'human rights,' he said.
The lawmakers said human rights issues should be at the "forefront" of the Obama-Sang talks.
Nearly 20 human rights groups wrote a separate letter to Obama requesting him to particularly raise with the Vietnamese government the arrest and arbitrary detention of Le Quoc Quan, a prominent lawyer, blogger, and human rights defender.
Quan was arrested and charged with alleged "tax evasion" in late December 2012 and held incommunicado for the first two months.
He protested with a hunger strike for 15 days and is still imprisoned and not allowed visits from his family. His trial, which was scheduled to take place this month, was postponed at the last minute.
"Given the great importance of international attention to the effort to secure Mr. Quan’s freedom, and to enable him to return to his indispensable human rights work, we hope you will seize the opportunity of President Sang’s upcoming visit to request the immediate release of Mr. Quan," the rights groups told Obama.
Vietnamese dissidents are often held incommunicado for lengthy periods, without access to counsel or family visits, often subjected to torture or other mistreatment, and prosecuted in politically controlled courts, which are increasingly handing out lengthy sentences, Human Rights Watch, one of the groups which signed the letter said in a statement.
“If criticizing the Vietnamese government is a crime, President Obama should show solidarity with dissidents by committing the crime himself,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“President Sang cannot publicly justify his government’s crackdown and should use this occasion to repudiate it.”
Human Rights Watch urged the United States to suspend its defense and trade negotiations with Vietnam until the government ends its crackdown and pledges to repeal legal provisions criminalizing dissent.
“Obama should use this occasion to call this behavior what it is: authoritarianism,” Sifton said.
A group of 82 Vietnamese scholars, some long-time members of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, also sent an open letter to President Sang, expressing their concern over Hanoi's relations with China and what they called Vietnam's deteriorating human rights situation.
They expressed concern over Chinese incursions in Vietnamese waters, despite Sang's visit to Beijing last month, during which the two countries agreed to set up a hotline to resolve fishing incidents in the disputed South China Sea.
"Even before the ink on the agreements mentioned in a joint communique could dry out, Chinese marine surveillance [teams] chased and attacked our fishermen’s boats near the Paracel Islands," the scholars said, asking Sang to use his Washington trip to "move away from China’s influence."
"I hope this time he can make some amends to the trip he made to China," said lawyer Le Hieu Dang, one of the letter's signatories.
Nguyen Nguyen Binh, another intellectual who signed the letter, said they were also "very concerned" about "human rights abuses, illegal arrests, and closed trials [and] use of illegitimate reasons to arrest bloggers, imprison them, and ill-treat them and make them go on hunger strike."
"All this shows that they are violating human rights."
But Sang maintains that in Vietnam “the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people are respected.”
Asked by the Associated Press about American concerns about the arrests of bloggers, he said: “There are a number of differences between Vietnam and the United States including those on human rights, but this is quite normal.”
“It is my hope that after five years of no exchanges of high-level visits between the two countries, my official visit to the United States this time will contribute to elevating Vietnam-U.S. relations into a profound, efficient and substantive framework,” he told AP in an emailed statement.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.