As people all over the globe celebrate the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, we would like to remind the world that human rights remain an elusive ideal and an endless struggle in Vietnam. To put it bluntly, the human rights picture in Vietnam in 2021 is dark and depressing, even after two high-profile visits from US officials. First, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Hanoi in July mainly to discuss security issues; there hardly was any mention of human rights. His visit was quickly followed by Vice President Kamala Harris in August, who brought a much needed donation of millions of doses of COVID vaccines. Only at the very end of her trip did the vice president bring up the topic of human rights, albeit in fairly generic and diplomatic terms. Regretfully, the vice president did not mention any political prisoners in particular even though there was a concerted push from multiple human rights organizations, including ours, requesting her to do so.
Of the 30 arrests so far this year, there were several high-profile cases that the vice president could have brought up to highlight blatant abuses. For example, in January of this year the courts handed down some of the harshest sentences yet against several independent journalists: Pham Chi Dung, 55, a former reporter for Voice of America and founder of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN), was sentenced to 15 years in prison; Dung’s colleague, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, 69, a member of Radio Free Asia Vietnamese Service, received an 11-year sentence; Le Huu Minh Tuan, 32, another IJAVN member, was given 11 years. All three men were charged with the catch-all crime of “anti-state propaganda” under the vaguely worded Article 117, formerly known as Article 88.
The Year of the Pandemic also saw a surge in online activities as the government imposed quarantines and lockdowns in its belated and futile effort to contain the virus. As the number of COVID cases and deaths rose, fear and frustration gripped society. Economic and other hardships began to take their toll; citizens became more vocal in their criticisms of the government’s mishandling of the disease. As expected, authorities struck back by clamping down on online communication. The cyber security laws enacted last year gave cyber police more tools to monitor and harass online users via its army of cyber thugs, aka Force 47, which was frequently used to mass report against certain Facebook accounts to have them suspended or blocked. At least 13 Facebookers were arrested.
Making matters worse, fake news — which was tacitly allowed to flourish in Vietnam during last year’s US presidential election – became a huge problem once again as the government failed to provide the public with timely and accurate information via its vast networks of state-run media. False information about the virus and scientifically unproven remedies flooded Vietnamese YouTube channels and Facebook pages as people anxiously awaited the inexplicably late arrival of vaccines. Anti-China sentiments also played a role in dissuading many from getting inoculated with Chinese vaccines. According to the Anti-Fake News Centre at the Ministry of Communication and Information, by July, 2021, at least 38 users were fined for “spreading misinformation” on Facebook, most were COVID-related. However, current legislation does not clearly distinguish between facts and personal opinions, leaving the interpretation up to local law enforcement.
Some journalists and bloggers tried to counter this negative trend by posting real news and information. In all, at least 10journalists and bloggers have been arrested this year so far, but not all of them are independent. One Facebook group in particular, called Báo Sạch (Clean News), was started by an editor at a state-run publication. The page became popular with its brand of hard-hitting fact-checked reports. Unfortunately, the group also made the mistake of reporting on corruption by government officials and, as a result, became victims of Article 117. Five men associated with Clean News, including founder Truong Chau Huu Danh, were convicted and sentenced to a total of 14.5 years behind bars. In addition, they were banned from working for the state for another three years after their release.
Independent journalists are not the only victims of Vietnam’s one-party rule. People who tried to run for an independent seat in the National Assembly also got into trouble, even though according to Vietnamese laws they are allowed to do so. Le Trong Hung announced his candidacy on March 14, 2021, and was arrested two weeks later, ostensibly for spreading “anti-state propaganda.” The charges involve articles he had written calling for an election process that is more in line with Vietnamese and international laws. While in jail, Hung’s request to have copies of Vietnam’s Constitution distributed to his jailers was repeatedly denied.
One month earlier, Tran Quoc Khanh was arrested soon after declaring his independent candidacy for a seat in the National Assembly. Khanh was eventually charged with “making, storing, distributing material against the state,” which in other countries might simply be called campaigning. In October, Khanh was sentenced to six years and six months behind bars. Overall, four independent candidates were arrested this year. Le Trong Hung is still awaiting trial. His wife, who is blind, still has not been allowed to visit her husband.
On a similar note, it has been over 400 days since prominent journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang was arrested, yet her family still has not been allowed to see her despite numerous requests to do so. Trang’s incredible saga began on October 6 last year. In what appeared to be a calculated arrow aimed straight at the international human rights community, police took the award-winning activist into custody just hours after the conclusion of the 2020 U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue.
For her part, Trang seemed to have seen it coming. Not long before her arrest, she had written a heartfelt letter and instructed her trusted friends to publish it should the state come for her. Trang was held incommunicado in pretrial detention for more than a year without access to a lawyer— a clear violation of Vietnamese law as well as international conventions. As of this writing, her brother is still waiting to hear from the court regarding the family’s latest request to see or talk to her.
Vietnam’s disregard for its international obligations was also on full display in the imprisonment of a family from Duong Noi in North Vietnam. Can Thi Theu and her sons, Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu, are land rights activists. They tried to help the villagers of Dong Tam tell their side of the story after the commune was ambushed by thousands of policemen in the middle of the night in January of 2020. The deadly raid resulted in the execution-style killing of the village elder, Le Dinh Kinh, and the mysterious deaths of three officers.
Nineteen villagers were later arrested and tried. Two are currently on death row for alleged murder, which was never proven in court. Several others are serving long prison sentences after a speedy trial that international observers called a sham since no defense witnesses were called. In the months following the attack and the trials, Theu and her two sons worked to bring the true story to light. They visited victims’ families and posted videos of interviews, and in so doing became a thorn in the sides of the authorities who simply wanted the story to go away. Finally, on June 24, 2020, all three were arrested along with Nguyen Thi Tam and put in pretrial detention where no one could talk to them. Similar to the case of Pham Doan Trang, numerous requests by the family in the past 18 months to visit the defendants have been ignored or denied. Their trials and those of Hung and Trang are expected to take place in rapid succession during the last two weeks of the year.
Another disturbing trend of 2021 was the arrests of non-traditional activists whom we consider to be community leaders who don’t necessarily engage in the typical activities we’ve seen in the past. For example, Nguyen Thuy Hanh founded the 50K Fund, whose recipients are mainly wives and children of political prisoners who in most cases were the main breadwinners. She was arrested in April for “anti-state propaganda.” Dang Dinh Bach runs a non-profit on sustainable development and was interested in using the Europe-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement as a tool to hold the Vietnamese government to its international obligations. He has been charged with “tax evasion.” Mai Phan Loi is editor-in-chief of the most prominent law magazine in the country, Phap Luat, as well as founder of a non-profit called Center for Media in Educating Community. He has also been charged with “tax evasion.”
Finally, we would like to raise awareness of the plight of the Khmer-Krom community, an indigenous people who have lived in the Southwestern parts of today’s Vietnam for millennia. In June of this year, authorities from Tra Vinh Province confiscated hundreds of copies of UN documents on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Police also detained their community leader, Thach Rine, for questioning. On October 14, Thach Rine was arrested and charged with “defamation” for postings on his Facebook page that allegedly made fun of Ho Chi Minh. While it is not yet clear what the government’s real reason is, this is a disturbing trend nonetheless, given the long history of struggle for autonomy by the Khmer-Krom people and their demand for fundamental rights such as the right to teach their language in schools.
As 2021 draws to a close, we ask that the international human rights community remain vigilant and continue working with their respective governments to demand that Vietnam respect its international obligations, and that human rights remain a component of all treaties and trade agreements.