Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 45/2020 – Week of November 9-15

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of November 9-15. Vietnam has arrested yet another Facebooker for alleged “anti-state propaganda.” There is also an update on imprisoned journalist Nguyen Tuong Thuy. This week, ASEAN is meeting to discuss regional issues and has just approved a massive free trade deal. The Vietnamese government has announced the creation of a Code of Conduct for Social Networks. In the news and analysis section, read analysis on the future of US-Vietnam relations under President-elect Joe Biden. In case you missed it, read our report on torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners in 2018-2019. And take action for imprisoned Australian retiree Chau Van Kham.


Political Prisoners

The wife of independent journalist Nguyen Tuong Thuy has reported on her husband’s condition in prison. He said that his left arm has been in severe pain, something that he’d never suffered before the arrest. He also has to sleep on hard concrete, which hurts his back. He told his lawyer that if the family can not see him, then they should not bring him any supplies. He also told his wife not to try to attend his trial because they wouldn’t let her in the courtroom anyway. Thuy, a member of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, was arrested in May 2020.

Nguyen Van Lam being arrested on November 6 (NTV screenshot)

A Facebooker named Nguyen Van Lam, from Nghe An Province, has been arrested for postings deemed to have “anti-state propaganda,” according to Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code. His Facebook page, Lam Thoi, contains livestreams and articles about corruption, human rights abuses, the South China Sea, and environmental issues. If convicted, Lam, 50, could face between 12-20 years in prison. His arrest is the latest in a string of dozens of arrests this year ahead of the National Party Congress in January 2021.

This week, we remember the arrest and trial anniversaries of the following political prisoners:

  • Montagnard Christian activist Run, tried November 2013, and sentenced to nine years in prison

  • Hoa Hao Buddhist Le Thi Hong Hanh, arrested November 13, 2017, sentenced to three years in prison; due for release from prison this month

  • Music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh, tried November 15, 2019, and sentenced to 11 years in prison
Activists at Risk
Father Anthony Nguyen Huyen Duc, head of Thien An Monastery in Hue, still has not been allowed to return to Vietnam from Germany where he’d gone to have medical treatment. In a letter to his superior, Father Anthony said his illness started after he was given some tea at the police station, which caused him great pains in his teeth and bones and caused his hair to start falling out. He believes that was poisoned. The local government has been trying for years to take over the land where the monastery currently sits.
International Advocacy

In this study by HRMI Rights Tracker, Vietnam scores 3.4 (out of 10) in the category of Safety from the State, which includes low scores for things like: arbitrary arrest (2.0); disappearance (3.3); torture (2.2); extra-judicial execution (4.6). Compared to 28 other countries in the survey, Vietnam’s score is below average.

This week, ASEAN members are meeting in a virtual summit to discuss topics ranging from the South China Sea to covid19. The tone of the summit has been one of promoting regional cooperation. “This year, peace and security are under even greater threat as a result of compounding risks arising from the unpredictable conduct of states, rivalries and frictions among major powers,” said Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnam’s Prime Minister. Vietnam is currently the chair of ASEAN.

Further, ASEAN has approved the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as part of the summit. The RCEP is the largest global free trade deal, comprising 15 countries and nearly a third of the world’s GDP. It includes all 10 ASEAN members and other signatories like China and Australia. Meanwhile, talks are still continuing on a possible UK-Vietnam free trade deal.

EU-Vietnam November 5 meeting, Source: EU Delegation to Vietnam Twitter 

On November 5, the 1st meeting of the EU-Vietnam PCA sub-committee  on Good Governance, Rule of Law, and Human Rights took place in Hanoi, addressing issues including gender equality, human trafficking, judicial reform, ILO conventions, the UPR and ICCPR, and cybersecurity.

Internet Freedom

On November 6, during a session of Vietnam’s National Assembly, Vietnam’s Ministry of Information announced that a policy to govern social media activities is in the works. The Code of Conduct for Social Networks is expected to limit users’ abilities to criticize the state on online platforms and facilitate another means by which to persecute activists.


OceanLotus: Extending Cyber Espionage Operations Through Fake Websites, Steven Adair, Thomas Lancaster, and Volexity Threat Research, Volexity, November 6, 2020: “Volexity has identified multiple new attack campaigns being launched by OceanLotus via multiple fake websites and Facebook pages that have been set up within the last year. In addition to targeting those within Vietnam, Volexity has seen renewed targeting of OceanLotus’s neighbors throughout Southeast Asia. These websites have been observed profiling users, redirecting to phishing pages, and being leveraged to distribute malware payloads for Windows and OSX.”

US: President Should Set a Human Rights Foreign Policy. Human Rights Watch, November 10, 2020: “As the United States grapples with systemic racism and other human rights violations domestically, it is particularly important for the president to ensure that US foreign policy helps to eliminate and does not contribute to discrimination around the world, and strengthens equality in law and practice. President-Elect Joe Biden can begin by clearly stating in a public address his commitment to a human rights foreign policy. When his administration takes office in January 2021, it should take immediate steps to carry out the following commitments, which will place the United States on the right path to making human rights a foreign policy priority.”

What Will a Biden Presidency Mean for U.S.-Vietnam Relations?, Bich T. Tran, Modern Diplomacy, November 9, 2020: “Biden makes it clear that ‘the United States does need to get tough with China…. The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors’. He promises to deepen partnerships to advance shared values in a region and uphold diplomacy as U.S. primary tool of foreign policy. For him, the answer to the China threat is ‘more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances’. Therefore, Biden will continue to strengthen U.S. partnership with Vietnam.”

Why Vietnam Isn’t Happy About a Biden Presidency, Michael Tatarski, Vice, November 10, 2020: “Given the last four years, it is difficult to know if there is any clear preference among Vietnam’s top party officials. Trump’s policies, especially on trade, have been hugely beneficial for Vietnam at times, but detrimental at others. ‘Trump has been a source of frustration to the Vietnamese in that his policies have been so bipolar,’ said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington D.C. who specializes in Southeast Asia. ‘He’s so transactional, and they understand transactional, but he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership [trade deal], and no country did more to get into the TPP than Vietnam, so they were angry.’”

Biden in a rights dilemma in strategic SE Asia, David Hutt, Asia Times, November 10, 2020: “Moreover, some issues are well-established. Nobody expects the Biden presidency to change America’s acceptance of Vietnam’s one-party communist system and its widespread human rights abuses, a bipartisan consensus established during the Obama administration because of Hanoi’s opposition to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. ‘US policy has failed the Vietnamese people,’ commented Representative Christopher Smith at a hearing of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations in July 2018, noting the Trump administration’s continuance of Obama’s policy. ‘This is a bipartisan criticism. We have enriched Vietnam’s Communist leaders and coddled their interests at the expense of the hope and desires of the Vietnamese people for liberty and human rights.’”

In 2018, Government Restrictions on Religion Reach Highest Level Globally in More Than a Decade, Pew Research Center, November 10, 2020: “As of 2018, most of the 56 countries with high or very high levels of government restrictions on religion are in the Asia-Pacific region (25 countries, or half of all countries in that region) or the Middle East-North Africa region (18 countries, or 90% of all countries in the region)…. Out of the five regions examined in the study, the Middle East and North Africa continued to have the highest median level of government restrictions in 2018 (6.2 out of 10). However, Asia and the Pacific had the largest increase in its median government restrictions score, rising from 3.8 in 2017 to 4.4 in 2018, partly because a greater number of governments in the region used force against religious groups, including property damage, detention, displacement, abuse and killings.”


Dao Quang Thuc, a retired teacher who died in prison, at his trial on September 19. Source: Vu Thi Ha/ Vietnam News Agency via AP

Our new report focuses on incidents of torture and other inhumane treatment of political prisoners by the Vietnamese government in 2018-2019. We have documented 19 cases of possible torture of Vietnamese political prisoners during that period. Read a summary of the key findings, and our call for the Vietnamese government to uphold its obligations under international law, here.


Chau Van Kham (left) and Tran Van Quyen at trial, Source: Vietnam News Agency/AFP
Amnesty International is petitioning for the release of Australian citizen Chau Van Kham, who was arrested upon entering Vietnam in January, 2019, and who is serving a 12-year sentence for allegedly “attempting to overthrow the government.” Kham’s family says he’s in poor health, and they fear for his well-being. You can sign the petition here.

© 2020 The 88 Project