January ended on a low note for freedom of expression and the state of human rights in Vietnam. On January 30, two anonymous men broke into the home of human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and threatened him. This news comes after several dissidents were assaulted after visiting ex-political prisoner Tran Anh Kim earlier in January. This kind of behavior towards activists is not uncommon in Vietnam, as they are often harassed, beaten, or otherwise intimidated.
February dawned and brought the releases of two detained bloggers—Nguyen Quang Lap and Hong Le Tho. Both bloggers were released to house arrest for medical reasons, and both are still under investigation for their previous charges. On February 11, Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor tweeted: “Welcome #Vietnam releasing bloggers Hong Le Tho and Nguyen Quang Lap; urge gov’t to also release Nguyen Dinh Ngoc and drop charges against all.”
Additionally, Vietnam recently ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, a welcome step—but it should be noted that Vietnam continuously fails to follow its other human rights obligations as laid out by treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects free speech, amongst other human rights. Additionally, the UN has released a report on the status of freedom of religion in Vietnam; this report is a result of UN Special Rapporteur’s Heiner Bielefeldt’s visit to Vietnam over the summer, a visit during which many people were blocked from meeting with Mr. Bielefeldt.
An article by CNN this month dissected the infamous Article 258, which was created in 2013 and is one of the main articles of Vietnam’s Penal Code used to prosecute dissidents. The article also tells the harrowing story of husband and wife Le Anh Hung and Le Thi Phuong Anh. The two are known for their promotion of human rights, as well being vocal about Vietnam and China’s disputed territories and corruption amongst Vietnamese leaders. After being arrested in 2013, Le Anh Hung was committed involuntarily to a mental institute and held there for some time. His wife has previously been kidnapped by police and raped. She and two others were arrested (and detained without charges for months) after taking photos of the aftermath of a riot (they are also tied to anti-China protest posts on Facebook)—even after they complied with police orders and destroyed the photos. At their trial on February 13, 2015, supporters and family were blocked from attending; the US Embassy’s representative was also denied access to the trial. Le Thi Phuon Anh was sentenced to one year and Do Nam Trung and Pham Minh Vu were sentenced to 14 and 18 months– all under Article 258.
Also this month, the government took away the online operating license of newspaper Nguoi Cao Tuoi (The Elderly) and has targeted its editor, Kim Quoc Hoa, for reporting on corruption within the country—something that is taboo to do even today. Vietnam is ranked 175/180 on Reporter Without Borders’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
As Vietnam continues to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, other TPP nations must remember and take into consideration how Vietnam treats its human rights advocates, how it has created laws that single out those activists, and how it has failed to uphold its obligations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and as party to numerous human rights-based international treaties.