Authorities in Vietnam should drop charges and release a U.S. citizen and Vietnamese nationals arrested last month for taking part in rare, large-scale protests over government plans to grant long-term leases to foreign companies operating in special economic zones (SEZs), a rights group said Thursday.
William Nguyen, a 32-year-old graduate student of Vietnamese descent from Houston, Texas, will be tried Friday on charges of “disturbing public order” under penal code article 318 and could face a seven-year prison term if convicted.
Nguyen was beaten by police and 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 plans for concessions to foreign companies operating in SEZs, which had stirred public fears that the leases would go to Chinese-owned firms.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement that Nguyen and others face “unfair trials and long sentences before Communist Party-controlled courts” for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and expression, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which is endorsed by United Nations member countries, including Vietnam.
“Vietnamese authorities should immediately drop the criminal charges, release Nguyen and others arrested, and respect the fundamental rights that Vietnam has agreed to uphold,” he said.
In tweets posted from the rallies, Nguyen had described clashes between citizens and the police, but state media said the American student had also urged protesters to overrun police barricades as they marched toward the city center.
Video footage of the protest shows men in civilian clothing and surgical masks, believed to be plainclothes police, restraining Nguyen—whose head is covered in blood—and dragging him away from the area.
On June 18, Nguyen apologized on state television for his presence at the demonstrations and promised to stay away from protests in the future.
“Human Rights Watch is very concerned that Nguyen’s public statement violated his due process rights and may have been coerced,” Robertson said in Thursday’s statement.
“Televised ‘confessions’ of this kind are a shameful tactic used by oppressive governments to intimidate critical voices into silence and flaunt their disregard for fundamental rights.”
Human Rights Watch noted that Vietnam does not have a specific law on public demonstrations, and that authorities regularly use other statutes to prosecute peaceful protesters.
But the group said that physical assaults by unknown men in civilian clothes against demonstrators has become “common practice” in Vietnam, referring to a report it issued last year that highlighted 36 incidents between January 2015 and April 2017 in which rights campaigners and bloggers were beaten—many in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to intervene.
“Time and time again, Vietnamese authorities use excessive force to crack down on peaceful protesters and then cynically claim that it was all the protesters’ fault,” Robertson said.
“International donors and trade partners should recognize that Vietnam’s manipulation of the rule of law does not just apply to human rights cases, but affects all aspects of life in the country.”
Human Rights Watch’s call for Nguyen’s release came as nineteen members of U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Thursday, urging him to employ “all diplomatic means” to free the graduate student.
“As elected representatives of Mr. Nguyen’s family or the greater Vietnamese-American community, we remain very concerned about the seriousness of the pending charges and the sentences he faces,” the legislators said in the letter.
“Consistent with the mission of your department, there is no doubt that a favorable resolution to this matter will advance the national interest of the United States and its people.”
Pompeo traveled to Vietnam earlier this month and urged government officials to find a quick resolution to Nguyen’s case, but Nguyen’s sister Victoria Nguyen told RFA’s Vietnamese Service last week that she was upset that the secretary of state had failed to secure her brother’s release.
U.S. lawmaker Alan Lowenthal, a co-chair of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus, told RFA earlier this week that Nguyen’s case had drawn significant attention in Washington.
“Up until now… much of the focus [in Congress] was on Vietnamese who had been arrested in Vietnam because of wanting greater religious freedom or political dissent or there were attacks on the media,” Lowenthal said.
“Now it is an American of Vietnamese background who was arrested for engaging in a peaceful demonstration. This has stirred the conscience of the United States Congress.”
Lowenthal said that Congress “will be watching what takes place on Friday,” and will “take a fresh look at what consequences will occur” if Nguyen is not freed.
“All he has done is exercise his rights to free expression—he did not try to overthrow the government, he did not try to engage in anti-government affairs,” Lowenthal said.
“We are just encouraging the Vietnamese government to do the right thing and to exonerate Mr. Nguyen and … free him. If they choose to make an example of him and convict him and send him to jail … that will lead to a reaction on the part of the Congress.”
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.