Civil society highlights torture and ill-treatment of activists at UN review


Torture of activists continues with impunity

Ahead of the review of Vietnam's implementation of the Anti-Torture Convention, on 2nd and 3rd November 2018, six civil society organisations submitted a report to the UN Committee Against Torture. According to the report police brutality, torture, and lethal beatings continue unabated throughout the country. The report also stated that there is systematic impunity of the abusers, and a lack of concrete action by the government of Vietnam to effectively reduce and prevent acts of torture.

The report notes that activists are usually charged with national security crimes, are not eligible to be released on bail and are routinely subjected to prolonged pre-trial detention.

According to the report, detainees are at the greatest risk of being tortured or subjected to aggressive, arbitrary treatment when they are held in isolation, often incommunicado detention for a year, and sometimes more, with no access to lawyers. Sometimes they are held with a cellmate (sometimes referred to as “antennae”), whose duty is to monitor and report on them to prison authorities.  In many cases, authorities refuse to inform families of activists where the prisoner is being held, which causes suffering and distress to the prisoner and their families and in most cases constitutes an act of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Abuses are common in the period before conviction, as authorities apply pressure to extract confessions from detainees.

During the review the UN Committee noted that many activists had been held in incommunicado detention for periods of one month to up to two years. There was also information that denial of medical treatment was used by the authorities to put pressure on these prisoners to confess their guilt. The UN Committee also expressed concern that the government “did not permit civil society to work for human rights as a constructive counterpart to the Government. That was an indispensable part of a functional democracy. Instead, the State party seemed to consider such counterparts as enemies of the Government and arrested them for being against the system".

Deportation of human rights defender 

On 10th September 2018, a Malaysian human rights activist who had arrived in the country to attend a regional World Economic Forum (WEF) summit was deported by the authorities. Debbie Stothard, Secretary-General of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), had arrived in Vietnam on 9th September and was detained overnight at the Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport overnight before being deported to Malaysia the following morning.

Stothard, who had been invited to speak at the forum, was denied entry for “national defense, security or social order and safety” reasons. She also serves as coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma).

Global human rights groups condemned her arbitrary detention and deportation. Mandeep Tiwana, CIVICUS Chief Programmes Officer said:

“By arbitrarily detaining and deporting a representative of a well-respected international human rights organisation, Vietnamese authorities have demonstrated serious disdain for international norms. Such actions weaken Vietnam’s commitment to the sustainable development goals framework which promises respect for fundamental freedoms and support for effective partnerships with civil society.”
Activist Nguyen Trung Truc sentenced to 12 years imprisonment

Activist Nguyen Trung Truc was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on 12th September 2018, in a trial that lasted less than three hours. Nguyen was arrested in August 2017 for involvement with a human rights group called the Brotherhood for Democracy. Authorities charged him with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the 1999 penal code.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said:

“Nguyen Trung Truc is yet another victim of the Vietnamese government’s campaign against people who advocate human rights and democracy…the country is now becoming a giant prison for anyone who speaks up against the government or acts to advance basic rights.”

Nguyen, 44, has a long history of involvement in pro-democracy activities. He spent more than seven years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong in 1990s, then was deported back to Vietnam in 1997. In 2003, he went to work in Malaysia, where he joined the Vietnam Restoration Movement (Phong trao Chan hung nuoc Viet), founded by the rights activists Vu Quang Thuan and Le Thang Long. The organisation advocated for Vietnam to adopt a multi-party, democratic political system.

Five pro-democracy activists jailed

On 5th October 2018, prison sentences of between eight and 15 years were handed to five peaceful protestors by the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City. The five, Luu Van Vinh (15 years), Nguyen Van Duc Do (11 years), Tu Cong Nghia (10 years), Nguyen Quoc Hoan (13 years) and Phan Trung (8 years), were convicted of “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Luu Van Vinh had been active in peacefully protesting Chinese maritime activity in the disputed South China Sea and the government’s response to the Formosa environmental disaster, a massive toxic spill from a Taiwanese steel plant in Viet Nam’s central coast. In May 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion that the arrest of Luu Van Vinh was arbitrary. His co-defendants are accused of belonging to a small local group founded to promote democracy and human rights called the “Coalition of Self-determined Vietnamese Peoples.”

European Parliament criticises Vietnam for systematic violations 

On 15th November 2018, the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning “the continuing violations of human rights, including the sentencing, political intimidation, surveillance, harassment, assaults and unfair trials in Vietnam perpetrated against political activists, journalists, bloggers, dissidents and human rights defenders for exercising their freedom of expression both online or offline, in clear violation of Vietnam’s international human rights obligations”. It also condemned the abuse of repressive legal provisions restricting fundamental rights and freedoms; and called on the authorities of Vietnam to repeal, review or amend all repressive laws.

The body called on the EEAS (European External Action Service) and the European Commission to “support civil society groups and individuals defending human rights in Vietnam in an active manner, including by calling for the release of human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience in all contacts they hold with Vietnamese authorities”.

Dissident blogger “Mother Mushroom” released but forced into exile

On 17th October 2018, prominent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) was released on condition that the activist moves to the U.S. She arrived to a large crowd of supporters in Houston and vowed to keep speaking out on human rights. She said:

"I will continue to raise my voice until there is human rights in Vietnam, real human rights."

As previously documented, the blogger had written on social and political issues and participated in numerous public protests to advocate for human rights and the environment. She was arrested and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” in October 2016 and sentenced to ten years in prison in June 2017. In February 2018 she was arbitrarily transferred to a remote prison hundreds of kilometres from her former location in the city of Nha Trang.

Peaceful assembly

Court upholds sentence for protesters

On 9th November 2018, Defend the Defenders reported that the People’s Court of Dong Nai province rejected the appeals of 15 individuals who had been sentenced by a lower court four months ago to between eight and 18 months in prison for their participation in a peaceful demonstration against two proposed bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security in June 2018. The appeal hearing lasted around four hours.

Tran Nguyen Duy Quang was sentenced to 18 months in prison while Pham Ngoc Hanh sentenced to 16 months. Vo Nhu Huynh was sentenced to eight months and the remaining 12 protesters to ten months each on the charge of “disrupting public order” under Article 318 of the 2015 Penal Code. Six of the protesters are female.

As previously documented, mass nationwide demonstrations were reported in Vietnam against the bills in June 2018, including in the cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Danang, Nha Trang and Binh Thuan. Police dispersed many of the protests with many being arrested and subsequently charged. Some demonstrators were beaten in custody.


Vietnamese activist to be tried for defacing the national flag 

As previously documented, in August 2018, blogger and activist Huynh Thuc Vy was ordered to remain in her home and was banned from leaving the country until October 2018. She was under investigation for defacing the flag of Vietnam after she smeared white paint on the national flag in 2017. Vy could face up to three years in prison if convicted. In early November 2018, Radio Free Asia reported that Huynh Thuc Vy would be prosecuted for “affronting the national flag or national emblem” under Article 276 of the country’s 1999 Penal Code.

Vy, is the co-founder of the Vietnamese Women for Human Rights group, she won a Hellman/Hammett grant from Human Rights Watch in 2012 for her political writing on rights issues and the persecution of ethnic minorities. In 2017, she was listed by the BBC among five women in Asia “who risk their lives for others' rights”. She has been frequently targeted by officials

Journalist jailed for a total of nine years for coverage of evictions

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), on 17th September 2018, a court in the northern province of Bac Ninh sentenced journalist Do Cong Duong to four years in prison for “disturbing public order”, which is a criminal offense under article 318 of the penal code. In October 2018, Defend the Defenders reported that Do Cong Duong was sentenced to another five more years on the charge of “abusing democratic freedoms” under Article 331 of the country’s 2015 Penal Code.

Duong was detained on 24th January 2018 while filming and taking photographs of state authorities forcibly evicting residents at the Tu Son commune in Bac Ninh, reports said. Official land-grabbing is a politically sensitive issue in the Communist Party-dominated country.

Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative said:

"If Vietnam wants to be taken seriously as a responsible international actor, it must stop jailing journalists…Do Cong Duong should be released.”

Duong regularly covers land rights and corruption, including on his "Tieng Dan TV" program where he live-streamed video discussions over Facebook, according to the 88 Project.

At least 10 journalists were held behind bars in Vietnam when CPJ conducted its annual census of jailed journalists worldwide in December 2017. All 10 were jailed on anti-state charges related to their work.

Freelance journalist arrested and beaten by for interviewing families of convicted protesters

Freelance journalist Le Thi Thu was arrested and beaten by Dong Nai province’s police for interviewing families of those involved in the mid-June 2018 mass protests.

Thu, a former reporter of a local website Dan Tri, said she was detained by men in plain clothes who introduced themselves as police officers from the security police unit of Dong Nai province’s police department on 9th November 2018. She was detained after she interviewed the families of some of the convicted protesters in a cafeteria near the People’s Court of Dong Nai, on the sidelines of their appeal in Bien Hoa city.

The police officers ordered her to stay when she tried to leave the cafeteria and grabbed her two cell phones. About 15 minutes later, police from Hoa Binh Ward came and they took her to the police station. In the station, police confiscated her belongings and asked her to provide them with information of those she was interviewing.

In the early evening of the same day, a police officer who introduced himself as a deputy head of the Security Police Unit of the province’s police department, suddenly grabbed her two phones and threw them at her and allegedly assaulted her. She was released later that day.