Vietnam: Drop Charges Against Internet Activist

(Bangkok) – Vietnam’s government should unconditionally release the social campaigner Dinh Nhat Uy, Human Rights Watch said today. He is scheduled for trial in Long An provincial court on October 29, 2013, for “abuse of democratic freedoms.”

Vietnam should revoke penal code article 258, under which he was charged, and stop prosecuting people for peacefully exercising their civil and political rights.

“Vietnam’s escalating use of rights-abusing laws to suppress public criticisms and peaceful protests makes a mockery of its claims to be a rights-respecting state,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Convicting Dinh Nhat Uy for demanding the release of his imprisoned brother and criticizing the government is an outrage, especially since the government is seeking a seat on the UN’s highest human rights body.”

Authorities arrested Dinh Nhat Uy, 30, in Long An province on June 15, after he began a campaign on his Facebook account calling for the release of his brother younger brother, Dinh Nguyen Kha. Dinh Nhat Uy also used social media to post other political commentary.

Dinh Nhat Uy’s arrest was the culmination of a wave of police harassment targeting the Dinh family. Dinh Nhat Uy is charged with violating penal code article 258, which Vietnam’s politically controlled courts routinely use to imprison people deemed under its provisions to “abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association, and other democratic freedoms,” to oppose the interests of the state.

Dinh Nguyen Kha, 26, was arrested on October 11, 2012, for “conducting propaganda against the state” by handing out leaflets criticizing “the party and the state’s policies related to religion and land” and government policies on border disputes between Vietnam and China, state media reported. Other charges against Dinh Nguyen Kha remain pending.

On May 16, the Long An provincial people’s court sentenced him to eight years for his leafleting, which was reduced to four years by an appeal court judgment on August 16.

The government’s indictment against Dinh Nhat Uy, dated September 6, alleges that he violated article 258 via Facebook a month after his brother’s arrest. Thereafter, the indictment alleges, he posted “bad and false information,” such as negative evaluations of Vietnam’s leaders, reports on activities by an “anti-state organization,” and a criticism of a government attack on a human rights award. If convicted, Dinh Nhat Uy faces a prison sentence of up to three years.

Dinh Nhat Uy’s trial is the latest in a crescendo of proceedings in Vietnam’s courts against political activists and dissidents so far in 2013, at least 61 of whom are known to have been convicted and sentenced to prison. This is a significant increase over the some 40 such convictions during 2012.

“Vietnam has significantly intensified its repressive tactics against peaceful activists, pursuing what is essentially a scorched earth policy against prominent public dissidents,” Robertson said. “For Vietnamese activists asserting their rights, 2013 has been the year of living dangerously. The international community needs to step up and tell Vietnam that enough is enough, stop these abuses.”

The increase in these cases shows that Vietnam’s authorities are trying to squelch rising civil society discontent at the Communist Party of Vietnam’s one-party rule, and to intimidate critics of rampant corruption, land seizures, severe socio-economic inequalities, economic problems, and laws that violate human rights. One manifestation of this wider social discontent is the recent formation of a network of bloggers dedicated to abolishing article 258.

Despite its repressive turn, Vietnam is running for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council in elections scheduled for November 12. Council members are supposed to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Vietnam’s campaign platform proclaims that human rights in the country have recently been “respected and ensured in an increasingly effective and full manner,” and in particular that the right to freedom of opinion expressed via the internet has been “enhanced.” It also pledges to adopt policies and measures to better ensure all “human rights in line with internationally recognized norms.”

“Civil society activists and bloggers in Vietnam see Dinh Nhat Uy’s trial as a government effort to show it can violate human rights at will, even while it seeks a place in the UN’s highest human rights body,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments should publicly demand immediate freedom for Dinh Nhat Uy and others imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their internationally-recognized freedoms, or expect to face difficulties during the Human Rights Council elections.”