Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 13/2017 – Week of May 22-28

Greetings from Huong, Ella, and Kaylee from The 88 Project! We are bringing to you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of May 22 to 28, 2017. We  are thinking of prisoner of conscience Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, as May 24 marked eight years since he was arrested. On May 26, a court of appeal upheld the heavy sentences of 12 and 13 years of imprisonment, respectively, for dissidents Trần Anh Kim and Lê Thanh Tùng. Many activists were confined to their homes as the U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue took place on May 23, although independent civil society organizations and activists were able to make their voice heard in a meeting with the U.S. delegation and through a joint declaration. Do check out the U.N. recommendations on the 2015 Criminal Code and Criminal Procedural Code of Vietnam as the codes contain provisions that are incompatible with the international law of human rights. There is more news and analysis on the death penalty, the situation of the Montagnard asylum seekers, and the visit of Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc to the White House next week.

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Prisoners of Conscience

May 24, 2017 marks eight years since blogger and entrepreneur Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức was arrested by the Vietnamese authorities. Family, supporters, and the international community continue to rally around him. Amnesty International released a letter from twelve directors ahead of the anniversary, urging the Vietnamese government to release Thức immediately and quash his conviction, or in the alternative, to treat him with respect while he is still imprisoned. The 88 Project echoes this appeal, firmly believing that Thức should be released unconditionally and be allowed to remain in Vietnam upon his release.

Lê Thanh Tùng (left) and Trần Anh Kim (right) at their trial in December 2016
Trần Anh Kim and Lê Thanh Tùng’s appeal trial took place on May 26 in Thái Bình province, but the court of appeal upheld the first instance court’s heavy sentences: 13 and 12 years of imprisonment for Kim and Tùng, respectively, under Art. 79 of the Criminal Code (“activities aiming at overthrowing the people’s government”). The two dissidents are former prisoners of conscience who were released in 2015 and re-arrested later in the same year. “The men are accused of preparing to launch the ‘National Force to Launch the Democracy Flag’ group, an organization the authorities claim was an attempt to link up dissatisfied soldiers and former members of the ousted South Vietnamese military in an effort to foment a revolution. They claim innocence because they had only planned to launch the association, but hadn’t officially organized, and also call the charges against them a violation of the right to freedom of speech and association in Vietnam.”

Check out this video by Front Line Defenders about former prisoner of conscience Phạm Thanh Nghiên, a finalist for the 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights, to learn more about her and the struggle of Vietnamese political activists.

Civil Society & Political Activists

As the U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue was taking place in Hanoi on May 23, many activists were prevented from meeting with U.S. State Department officials. Among them were independent journalist Phạm Đoan Trang and political activist Nguyễn Quang A, who were confined to their homes by plainclothes police. One day after the human rights dialogue, on May 24, a U.S. delegation led by Ms. Virginia Bennett, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, was able to meet with activists in Hồ Chí Minh City over dinner.
Earlier in the week, eleven Vietnamese civil society organizations sent a joint declaration on the general human rights situation in Vietnam to the U.S. State Department, recommending the U.S. to include binding provisions regarding human rights and an independent judiciary in trade negotiations between the two countries.
Criminal Code Reform
The 2015 Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes, the implementation of which was suspended last July for substantive errors, are back on the legislative floor for amendment debates this week. Check out the U.N. Recommendations on the 2015 Criminal Code and Criminal Procedural Code of Viet Nam in which the U.N. raises concerns regarding selected provisions that are incompatible with the international law of human rights.
In particular, concerning the 2015 Criminal Code’s provisions on “crimes infringing national security”: “These provisions do not differentiate between use of violent means, which should be prohibited, and legitimate peaceful activities to protest, express one’s opinion, including criticism of the Government’s policies and actions, or advocate for any kind of changes, including of the political system, which directly fall under the rights to freedom of expression, opinion, assembly, religion as well as participation in public life, and as such should be guaranteed and protected in accordance with international human rights law (articles 18, 19, 21 and 25 of ICCPR).”
And, concerning the provisions on prolonged incommunicado pre-trial detention in cases related to national security in the 2015 Criminal Procedure Code: “As a result of the combined provisions of articles 119, 172, 173 and 74 of the 2015 Criminal Procedural Code, a person accused of having committed a national security crime such as articles 109, 116 and 117, can be detained incommunicado for a prolonged and even indefinite period of time without a trial.”
Another controversial provision of the 2015 Criminal Code that provoked heated debate at the National Assembly this week is Art. 19, Clause 3 which holds a defense counsel criminally accountable for not denouncing his/her own client’s “national security crimes”… It’s already difficult enough for human rights lawyers to do their job in Vietnam. With this kind of provision, no lawyer would want to take on the defense counsel role for political dissidents and human rights defenders anymore.
Death Penalty
State of secrecy on death row in Vietnam: “Vietnam continues to classify figures on the death penalty as state secrets. What is known is that 18 offences still carry death – including drugs, murder and ‘threats against national security’. […]A leaked government report from the Ministry of Public Security earlier this year revealed [that the use of capital punishment] was worse than feared. According to the January 2017 report, 429 people had been executed between August 2013 and June 2016. As of July 2016, 681 people remained on death row. No explanation was provided as to why people were executed.”
Refugees & Asylum Seekers
“Forced” Montagnard TV confessions aired on Vietnamese television: “A video has emerged on Vietnamese television of Montagnards making ‘confessions,’ just weeks after a rights group claimed the returned refugees had been forced by the Hanoi government to take part in such interviews. […] Y-Duong Mlo was among 25 Montagnards authorities returned to Vietnam last month after failing to achieve refugee status in Cambodia. A video uploaded to YouTube by a channel that translates as ‘Security and Order Dak Lak’ on May 13 shows Mr. Mlo apologizing for his actions and depicting Cambodia as a dire place for Montagnards—also referred to as Degar and Dega.” This, sadly, is a sign that the Montagnards asylum seekers who were forced to return to Vietnam are not being left alone by the authorities.
Meanwhile, UNHCR representatives announced they would question the Cambodian government over their rejection of many Montagnards’ asylum applications: “UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, will question the government over its decision to deny asylum to the majority of Montagnards left in Cambodia, officials said, a month after the group was criticized for its role in repatriating some of the asylum-seekers to Vietnam.”


Vietnam takes Asia lead in figuring out Trump policy on South China Sea: “Vietnam’s prime minister will be hoping for answers for Southeast Asia about the future role of the United States in helping the region resist Chinese expansion in a widely disputed sea. Next week Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is expected to become the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House since Trump took office in January. Trade and maritime claims in the disputed South China Sea are expected to be high on the agenda.”
Trump faces human-rights test with Vietnamese leader’s visit: “On the eve of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to the White House next week, members of Congress called Thursday for President Donald Trump to speak out against deteriorating human-rights conditions in Vietnam. Nguyen and Trump are expected to discuss regional cooperation and bilateral relations, but experts testifying before the House this afternoon said it is past due for officials to condemn Vietnam’s increasing restrictions on free expression, state control of the judiciary and media, torture of political prisoners, and ongoing harassment of activists.”


May 30 marks the 6th anniversary of the trial of Trần Thị Thúy and six other land rights activists, who were sentenced to between four and eight years of imprisonment under Art. 79 of the Criminal Code (“carrying out activities aiming to overthrow the people’s government”) on May 30, 2011. According to Amnesty International’s list of Vietnamese prisoners of conscience, Phạm Văn Thông, serving 7 years, is due to be released this July. Trần Thị Thúy, a Hòa Hảo Buddhist, serving 8 years, has been in poor health, and is slated for release in August 2018.
Please take Amnesty International’s Urgent Action for Trần Thị Thúy. “Denied proper medical treatment by prison authorities since April 2015, when she was first diagnosed with a tumour on her uterus, Trần Thị Thúy is no longer able to walk without assistance. A prisoner of conscience, she has been detained since her arrest in 2010 and has expressed fears of death due to appalling prison conditions.”