Controls over Freedom of Expression and the Internet
There is no independent, privately-run media in Vietnam. Domestic newspapers, television and radio stations remain under strict government control. Although journalists are occasionally able to report on corruption by government officials, direct criticism of the Communist Party is forbidden. Foreign media representatives are required to obtain authorization from the Foreign Ministry for all travel outside Hanoi.
Arrests of Democracy Activists and “Cyber-Dissidents”
Several dissidents and democracy activists have been arrested and tried during the last several years on criminal charges—including espionage and other vaguely worded crimes against “national security”—for disseminating peaceful criticism of the government or calling for multi-party reforms in written statements or through the Internet. Legislation remains in force authorizing the arbitrary “administrative detention”—without trial—for up to two years of anyone suspected of threatening national security, with no need for prior judicial approval.
Cyber-dissidents who have been sentenced to prison on criminal charges include Pham Hong Son, currently serving five years’ imprisonment on espionage charges after he wrote and disseminated articles about democracy and communicated by e-mail with “political opportunists” in Vietnam and abroad; Nguyen Khac Toan, arrested in an Internet café and sentenced in 2002 to twelve years' imprisonment for having “vilified and denigrated Party and state officials, sending emails providing information to certain exiled Vietnamese reactionaries in France;” and Nguyen Vu Binh, a journalist who was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment after he criticized the government in an article distributed over the Internet.
Violations of the Right to Freedom of Religion
The government seeks to exercise control over virtually every aspect of religion, from ordination of Catholic clergy to prohibition of flood relief efforts by the non-sanctioned Buddhist organization, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
Despite the recent high-profile prisoner releases and new directives on religion, the government continues to arrest and imprison ethnic minority Christians in the northwestern provinces and Central Highlands and pressure them to recant their faith.
In an ironic twist, local officials are using the new religious regulations issued earlier this year as grounds to arrest minority Christians suspected of belonging to Christian groups that operate independently of the government.
Members of the Mennonite Church have also come under fire in recent years, in part because of the outspoken and at times confrontational style of Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, the activist leader of the Mennonite Church in Vietnam. In 2004 Rev. Quang and five other Mennonites were imprisoned on charges of resisting police officers after a scuffle broke out in March 2004 with undercover policemen who had been monitoring their Ho Chi Minh City church.
Quang and Evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach are currently serving three and two year sentences respectively. Ms. Le Thi Hong Lien was amnestied because of international pressure at the end of April, 2005 two months before the end of her one-year sentence. She had been sent to the Bien Hoa Mental Hospital at the end of February, having suffered a mental breakdown because of physical and mental abuse in prison. The remaining three—all of whom were beaten in custody—were released after serving their sentences.
While one monk from the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Thich Thien Mien, was included in the Lunar New Year prisoner amnesty, the government continues to persecute UBCV members and withhold any recognition of this group, once the largest organization of the majority religion in the country. In 2003, four UBCV monks were formally sentenced without trial to two years’ administrative detention. Many other UBCV members remain confined without charges to their pagodas, which are under strict police surveillance. Their phone lines are cut or monitored and movement in and out of the pagodas is restricted. The UBCV’s Supreme Patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang and its second-ranking leader, Thich Quang Do have been confined to their monasteries for years, effectively living under “pagoda arrest”.
Although relations between Vietnam and the Vatican have improved in recent years, the government continues to restrict the number of Roman Catholic parishes, require prospective seminarians to obtain government permission before entering the seminary, and maintain defacto veto power over Roman Catholic ordinations and appointments. At least three Catholics—members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix— continue to serve twenty year prison sentences imposed in 1987 for conducting training courses and distributing religious books without government permission. They were convicted of security offenses, including “conducting propaganda to oppose the socialist regime,” “undermining the policy of unity,” and “disruption of public security.”
Arbitrary Arrest, Mistreatment and Torture, and Unfair Trials
Police officers routinely arrest and detain suspects without written warrants, and authorities regularly hold suspects in detention for more than a year before they are formally charged or tried.
Prison conditions in Vietnam are extremely harsh and fall far short of international standards. Human Rights Watch has received reports of solitary confinement of detainees in cramped, dark, unsanitary cells; lack of access to medical care; and of police beating, kicking, and using electric shock batons on detainees.
Political trials are closed to the international press corps, the public, and often the families of the detainees themselves. Defendants do not have access to independent legal counsel. More than one hundred death sentences were issued in 2004, with twenty-nine crimes considered capital offenses under the penal code, including murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking, many economic crimes, and some sex offenses.
During his meeting with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, President Bush should press Vietnam to take the following steps:
1. Immediately release or exonerate all people imprisoned, detained, or placed under house arrest (“administrative detention”) because of their non-violent political or religious beliefs and practices. Cease surveillance and harassment of dissidents including those released from prison or detention.
2. Take urgent measures to end torture and other mistreatment of detainees. Investigate reports of torture and prosecute those responsible.
3. End the practice of detaining and prosecuting persons in secret, and in particular make public the names of all persons held for political and related activities.
4. Allow independent religious organizations to freely conduct religious activities and govern themselves. Recognize the legitimate status of churches and denominations that do not choose to join one of the officially-authorized religious organizations whose governing boards are under the control of the government. Allow these religious organizations to independently register with the government.
5. Urge the Vietnamese government to end its censorship and control over the domestic media, including the Internet and electronic communications. Authorize the publication of independent, privately-run newspapers and magazines.
6. Investigate reports of torture and beatings, including beating deaths, of ethnic minority Christians in both the northwestern provinces and the Central Highlands, and bring those responsible to justice. Cease the repression of ethnic minority Protestants, including bans on religious gatherings and other meetings, pressure to renounce one’s faith, and abusive police surveillance of religious leaders.
7. Address the grievances of the indigenous minorities (Montagnards) of the Central Highlands, including land confiscation, repression of religious freedom, lack of educational opportunities, pressure to join family planning programs, and restriction of freedom of assembly, association, and of movement.
8. Ensure that all domestic legislation is brought in conformity with Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Amend provisions in domestic law that criminalizes dissent and certain religious activities on the basis of imprecisely defined “national security” crimes. Specifically, amend or repeal Vietnam's Criminal Code to bring it into conformity with international standards. Eliminate ambiguities in the Criminal Code's section on crimes against national security, to ensure that these laws cannot be applied against those who have exercised their basic right to freedom of expression.
9. Achieve greater transparency and accountability in the criminal justice systems and work towards the establishment of an independent and impartial judiciary. Give advance notification of trial dates and allow international observers and independent monitors access to trials and to persons in pretrial or administrative detention and in prison.
10. Repeal the 1997 Administrative Detention Directive 31/CP, which authorizes detention without trial for up to two years for individuals deemed to have violated national security laws. The government should ensure that all detainees receive a fair trial within a reasonable time as required under international law.
11. Permit outside experts, including those from the United Nations and independent international human rights organizations, to have access to dissidents and religious followers in Vietnam, including members of denominations not officially recognized by the government.
12. Invite the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Vietnam to investigate human rights violations. U.N. officials should be allowed unrestricted access to the central and northern highlands and allowed to visit police stations, district and provincial jails, military-operated detention centers in border areas, as well as prisons such as Ba Sao prison in Ha Nam province, where many political prisoners are currently held.