This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Vietnam has stepped up arrests and harsh gag orders on activists, independent journalists, bloggers and Facebook commenters who raise concerns or criticism of their government in 2020, rights groups said.
One-party Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent has deteriorated sharply this year with a steady drumbeat of arrests in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party conference next month.
According to Amnesty International, as of May, 2019 Vietnam had in its custody 118 prisoners of conscience. Some have since been released after serving their sentences, but many more have been arrested and detained on similar charges.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in June that since the end of 2019 that the crackdown had been intensifying. HRW said that at that time it was aware of “at least 150 people convicted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression or association and currently in prison,” and 15 more on pretrial detention.
“Vietnam has one of the worst human rights records in Southeast Asia. It has some of the largest number of political prisoners and is sentencing people to extremely long prison terms,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia Division told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“We’re seeing people sent to prison for 12 years or 14 years for basically exercising their civil and political rights or the right to freedom of expression the right to peaceful public assembly, and the right to associate without government permission.”
Robertson said that these core rights were guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam has ratified, but they are ignored by Vietnam with the excuse that anything covered by Vietnamese law is not a human rights violation.
“So, there’s a huge gap between what the Vietnamese law says and what the international human rights obligations require of Vietnam but Vietnam, just ignores that as an inconvenient truth,” Robertson said.
Ahead of International Human Rights Day Thursday, multiple relatives told RFA that since their family members were taken in by authorities, they have been harassed, surveilled, denied visitation and even assaulted.
“When my husband was first detained, from May to September 2019, the police were often watching me, even posting guards at the stairway in front of my house,” Pham Thi Lan, wife of political prisoner Nguyen Tuong Thuy, told RFA.
Her husband, the vice president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN), was arrested for criticizing the government.
“Now it is very hard to visit my husband. When they arrested him, they definitely had a motivation to put him in jail. The law says after the investigation period ends, our family must be allowed to meet him directly, but the authorities are denying us. I only want to meet him in accordance with the law,” she said.
Authorities indicted Nguyen and two other members of the IJAVN on November 10 for making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the state of the socialist republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of Vietnam Penal Code.
Nguyen, Pham Chi Dung, and Le Huu Minh Tuan could face between 10 to 20 years in jail if convicted.
In another high-profile case, a court in Hanoi simultaneously sentenced 29 defendants in September for their involvement in a deadly clash over land rights that left three police officers and a protest leader dead in January at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi.
Of these, two received death sentences, while others got between 10 to 16 years in jail.
Four others who had raised their concern online and with foreign governments were arrested. Among them were Can Thi Theu and her two sons Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong.
Trinh Ba Phuong’s wife Do Thi Thu told RFA that authorities arrested her husband a mere four days after she gave birth.
“I felt very sad because three members in my family had been arrested at the same day. Currently, my husband is being detained at the No.1 Hoa Lo detention camp in Hanoi. Since his arrest, I have only been able to send clothes and money to him,” she told RFA.
“My life has been turned upside down, my two kids felt the emotional void created by the absence of their father, grandmother and uncle,” she said, adding that the other two were detained far away in Hoa Binh, province, some 75 kilometers (46 miles) away.
Another high-profile case is that of Nguyen Van Hoa, a former RFA videographer who was arrested in January 2017 for filming protests outside the Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group steel plant, from which a toxic spill in 2016 killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen and tourism workers jobless in four central provinces.
In Nov. 2017, he received a seven-year sentence with three years’ probation for “opposing the state” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code and is n detention in Quang Nam province, where he in 2020 began and ended a hunger strike.
On Tuesday, Nguyen’s sister Nguyen Thi Hue told RFA that she received a letter from her brother on Dec. 2, in which he told her he continues to refuse to wear a prison uniform.
According to the letter, which the An Diem Detention Camp authorities censored, Nguyen on Nov. 11 sent a petition to Vietnam’s Public Security Minister To Lam to denounce his and other prisoners’ maltreatment at the facility.
Nguyen states in the letter that the content of petition was also censored by prison authorities. He also said that he applied for a transfer to another detention camp because of the harsh conditions and inequality among prisoners in An Diem.
Elderly family members told RFA that the lengthy sentences handed down during the crackdown mean that they might never see each other again.
Authorities on Oct. 6 arrested an outspoken Vietnamese democracy activist and author Pham Doan Trang on charges of “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” under article 117 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code, accused as well as “anti-state propaganda” under article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. She faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Described by state media as a blogger who used to work for various publications in Vietnam, Pham was transferred to the capital Hanoi where she is currently being held at the Public Security Ministry’s No. 1 Detention Camp.
“Since her most recent arrest, we have not been able to meet each other,” Pham’s mother Bui Thi Thein told RFA this week.
“I have only been able to see her signature and am not able to meet her at all. I’ve heard that she could face 20 years in jail if she’s found guilty. As I am 80 years old this year, I fear that when my daughter is released from prison, I will have been dead for a long time. I don’t know if I can wait for her return or not,” Bui said.
Bui spoke of her pride in her daughter’s commitment to democratic ideals and said she is at peace even if she never gets to Pham again, but would consider such an opportunity to be a stroke of luck.
The crackdown has not been limited to online dissent.
On May 21, authorities arrested Pham Chi Thanh, an author of books and essays critical of Vietnam’s communist government and leaders, including a book self-published in 2019 harshly criticizing Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
A large group of police who burst through the door of his home and seized personal documents, two computers, and a printer. He was later charged under Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code for “producing, storing, and disseminating information and documents against the Vietnamese state.”
In November, Pham was transferred to a mental hospital in the town of Van Dien in Hanoi’s Than Tri district according to his wife Nguyen Thi Nghiem.
She told RFA Dec. 10 that the move surprised her.
“My husband is not psychotic nor mentally ill. I wish only for my husband’s health and good spirit,” she said.
Robertson said that with each passing International Human Rights Day, the situation in Vietnam is not improving, and that COVID-19 has diverted attention away from Hanoi, allowing the government to get away with intensifying crackdowns.
“In fact, it’s getting worse. And that is certainly the case this year where we have seen a renewed crackdown by the authorities, taking advantage of the distraction of the international community with many countries in Europe and North America preoccupied with their own situation in the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
“No one has been looking over their shoulder and no one has been objecting to them going after the dissidents and trying to potentially destroy what remains of the pro-democracy pro-human rights movement on the ground in Vietnam,” Robertson said.
Data from South Africa-based nonprofit CIVICUS’ Monitor research tool classified Vietnam as one of four Asian countries rated “closed” in terms of civil society and civic freedoms, along with China, Laos, and North Korea.