Viet Nam: Report documents how scores remain imprisoned for speaking out

The Vietnamese authorities must end their alarming crackdown on dissent and immediately put in place measures to protect activists from further harassment and imprisonment simply for exercising their rights, Amnesty International said in a new report today.

Silenced Voices: Prisoners of Conscience in Viet Nam examines how laws and decrees are used to criminalize freedom of expression, both online and in the streets. It also lists 75 prisoners of conscience in Viet Nam, some of whom have been locked up in harsh conditions for years.

“Viet Nam is fast turning into one of South East Asia’s largest prisons for human rights defenders and other activists. The government’s alarming clampdown on free speech has to end,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Viet Nam Researcher.

“This year, Viet Nam is both debating a revised constitution and vying for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. The government is telling the world about its respect for the rule of law, but the repression of dissent violates Viet Nam’s international commitments to respect freedom of expression.”

Authorities have arrested, charged, detained or imprisoned hundreds of dissenting voices over the years. This includes bloggers, labour and land rights activists, human rights defenders and those calling for peaceful democratic reform. Members of religious groups have also been targeted.

Since the beginning of 2012, at least 65 peaceful dissidents have been sentenced to long prison terms in some 20 trials that failed to meet international standards.

Prisoners of conscience are often kept in lengthy pre-trial detention without access to family members or lawyers. Trials fall far short of internationally accepted standards, often only last a few hours, and there is no presumption of innocence in practice.

This was the case in the trial of four political activists in January 2010, when the judges deliberated for only 15 minutes before returning with the full judgment. It then took the judges 45 minutes to read the judgment, strongly suggesting that it had been prepared in advance.

Once imprisoned, prisoners of conscience face harsh conditions and are sometimes held in solitary confinement or isolated from other prisoners, while some are subjected to torture or other cruel and inhuman treatment.

Among them is Do Thi Minh Hanh, a 28-year-old labour rights activist who was imprisoned for seven years in 2010 for handing out leaflets in support of workers demanding better pay and conditions. She has suffered badly in prison, including through several beatings by fellow prisoners that guards have done nothing to stop.

“Do Thi Minh Hanh, and all the others like her are prisoners of conscience who have done no more than peacefully express their opinion. They must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Abbott.

“Our report focuses on 75 imprisoned individuals who should never have been arrested in the first place. But while this number is shockingly high, it does not tell the full story. There are dozens of others in jail who may be prisoners of conscience, while there are many other government critics and activists who have been beaten, harassed, remain in pre-trial detention, or are under house arrest.”

While Viet Nam’s constitution broadly guarantees freedom of expression, a raft of laws and decrees have been introduced in recent years to curtail this right.

The 1999 Penal Code allows authorities to imprison for decades those aiming to “overthrow” or “conducting propaganda” against the state, charges that are almost exclusively used to punish peaceful dissent.

On 1 September this year, the government introduced a new decree severely restricting internet use, with harsh penalties for sharing news reports on blogs and social media, or online activity deemed a threat to national security.

Over the past year, Viet Nam has been debating a revised constitution, which the National Assembly is expected to vote on before its current session ends on 30 November. The government has this year carried out unprecedented “popular consultations” on the draft charter.

But according to Amnesty International’s analysis, the amended constitution contains vaguely worded loopholes that would allow the government to continue to restrict freedom of expression.

“The new draft constitution has the same fundamental problems as its predecessor, and will do nothing to protect human rights defenders and others at risk of being targeted by the authorities through restrictive laws and decrees,” said Abbott.

“The constitution should protect human rights and be underpinned by provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Viet Nam is a state party. Now is an opportunity to make sure it does, and that it is implemented in law and practice.”