Australia should urge Vietnam to release all political prisoners and to end restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, belief, and religion when the two sides meet for their annual bilateral human rights dialogue in Hanoi on April 26-27, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today in a 16-page memo submitted to Australia.
During the first quarter of 2012 alone, Vietnam sent at least 12 people to prison for exercising these rights peacefully. This follows the imprisonment of at least 33 rights activists and internet bloggers who were convicted in 2011 for simply expressing their political and religious beliefs.
“Vietnam has mastered the practice of harassing, arresting, and charging activists brave enough to speak their minds with vaguely worded national security crimes that carry severe penalties,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia should call out the Vietnam authorities on their farcical claims that they don’t have any political prisoners, because all those convicted have violated these rights-abusing laws.”
Australian officials should urge Vietnam to amend or repeal provisions in the penal code, the Ordinance on Religion, Ordinance 44 on Handling of Administrative Violations, and other domestic laws that criminalize peaceful dissent and certain religious activities in contravention of Vietnam’s obligations as a state that has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In particular, Australia should press for revocation or amendment of “national security” crimes, including penal code articles 79 (“subversion of people’s administration”), 87 (“undermining the unity policy”), 88 (“propaganda against the state”), 89 (“disrupting security”), 91 (“fleeing or staying abroad to oppose the people’s government”), 92 (“supplemental punishment” to strip citizen rights), and 258 (“abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state”).
Human Rights Watch pointed out that in practice, those who form or join any political party in serious opposition to the Communist Party of Vietnam can be accused of “subversion of the people’s administration” while those unwilling to conform to state-controlled religious organizations are frequently prosecuted for “undermining the unity policy.” Activists who write pro-democracy articles and anti-government commentaries and give interviews with foreign-based radio stations such as Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA), and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) are often held for “conducting propaganda against the state.”
Workers or land protesters who organize public protests or wild-cat strikes are more likely to be accused of “disrupting security.” Rights activists who try to flee Vietnam, or go overseas to conduct training and then return to Vietnam, can be accused upon arrest of “fleeing abroad or staying abroad to oppose the people’s government.” Religious activists, land rights petitioners, or anti-corruption campaigners are also prosecuted for “abusing democratic freedoms” to “infringe upon the interests of the State.” Finally, after serving many years in prison, those convicted under the above-mentioned articles can find themselves subjected to “supplemental punishment” which strips such former prisoners of certain citizen’s rights for up to five years, places them on probation or effective house arrest, and authorizes confiscation of a part or all of their properties.
“Vietnam’s diplomats like to tout the country’s respect for rule of law to foreign partners,” said Robertson. “But a justice system that imprisons people who protest peacefully contradicts the government’s empty assurances. Australian officials should use the dialogue to demand the same respect for international legal commitments to human rights that they expect for the provisions of international trade and aid agreements.”
Human Rights Watch also called on Australiato prioritize the immediate release of all political prisoners facing serious health problems so that they can receive proper medical treatment. In July and September, 2011, at least two political prisoners – Nguyen Van Trai and Truong Van Suong – died in jail.