Vietnamese activists are expressing some hope that a new law allowing the U.S. to sanction foreign governments for human rights violations and corruption will make Hanoi think twice before it cracks down on dissent.
Buried in the 2017 Defense Department spending bill approved by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 23, the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” allows the administration to apply sanctions to individuals in any country in the world for human rights violations.
“I think individuals in the politburo will have to be very cautious from now on when they make a decision to arrest anyone or crack down on the democracy movement,” former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Tien Trung told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” is based upon the 2012 the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 that applied only to Russia.
Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer and auditor who was arrested after uncovering a tax scam linked to high-ranking government officials. He refused to recant his accusations, and he died in prison under mysterious circumstances.
Under the expanded Magnitsky law, foreign individuals can be sanctioned if they engage in extrajudicial killings, torture or other human rights violations committed against people seeking to expose illegal government activity or defend human rights and freedoms.
It also applies to government officials or senior associates of government officials engaged in significant corruption or people who provide material assistance to those involved in significant government corruption.
Individuals found in violation of the law can have their U.S. visas revoked, can be prevented from entering the U.S.; face having their U.S. assets frozen and will be prevented from entering into transactions under U.S. jurisdiction.
‘They deserve that’
While the Magnitsky law now applies to countries outside of Russia, and could become another tool that the U.S. could use to force other countries to respect human rights, it’s unclear if it will do any good in Vietnam.
“They deserve that for what they have done to the Vietnamese people including my family,” Nguyen Thi Kim Lien, mother of prisoner of conscience Dinh Nguyen Kha, told RFA.
Kha is serving a four-year prison term for “conducting propaganda against the state” over leaflets he distributed at a protest over territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
He and University student Nguyen Phuong Uyen were sentenced in 2013 under Article 88 of the penal code, a provision rights groups say the government has used to muzzle dissent. Uyen was later released.
According to their indictment, Uyen and Kha distributed leaflets signed by overseas opposition group the Patriotic Youth League which accused the communist party of allowing China to take over the country by occupying its islands and exploiting its natural resources.
The Patriotic Youth League—a group of students, artists, and young professionals who promote social justice and human rights in Vietnam and which is banned in the country—had in the leaflets urged people “to take to the streets” against the communists.
While Nguyen sees the law as a positive development, she was unconvinced that it would make much difference to Hanoi.
“I think the government of Vietnam is unafraid of any act,” she said. “I only hope that they will change, but I don’t believe that they will change.”
Reported by Cat Linh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.