Vietnam is holding at least 288 prisoners of conscience in the country’s prisons and jails, with at least 79 arrested during the year through May, a report released this week by a California-based rights group says.
Those held include journalists, social media users, religious figures, and land rights and anti-corruption activists, according to the Report on Human Rights in Vietnam 2020-2021, released on June 20 by the Vietnam Human Rights Network.
“Vietnam continues to violate fundamental human rights, from discrimination, arbitrary arrest and detention, and violation of trial fairness to restrict freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and expression, [and] freedom of association,” the rights group said.
Vietnam’s crackdown on opposition voices intensified in 2020-2021, “especially during the months before the 13th Congress of the [Vietnamese Communist Party] in January 2012 and before the 15th National Assembly election in May 2021.”
“Up to May 31, 2021, at least 46 people expressing their political opinions through social media have been detained and prosecuted for violating the 2015 Penal Code,” often for what authorities called anti-state writings.
Others taken into custody during the year included political activists, independent journalists, and land-rights petitioners, the rights group said, adding, “All those people were prosecuted for having exercised their fundamental rights stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of Vietnam
The treatment handed out during the year to political prisoners in Vietnam’s detention centers, known for harsh and inhumane conditions, included transfer to prison camps far away from family homes, denial of family visits and medical treatment, and beatings by prison guards or by prisoners convicted of ordinary criminal offenses under instructions from police, according to the report.
And at trial, “the jury rarely pays attention to lawyers’ arguments in court, while the latter often do not dare to contradict the prosecutors. In most cases, the lawyers’ only duty is to ask for leniency,” the Vietnam Human Rights Network said.
Organizations promoting democracy and human rights in Vietnam, including Bloc 8406 and the Independent Journalists Association, faced continuing bans and persecution during the reporting year, with seven members of Bloc 8406 of the 51 arrested and sentenced as of May 2021 still behind bars.
“The Brotherhood for Democracy had nine members in detention, of which eight were sentenced to between 7 and 13 years in prison, and one was awaiting trial,” according to the report.
Prominent among those arrested or sentenced in 2020 were Pham Doan Trang, a winner of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Award who had worked as a journalist before she became a human rights activist and cofounder of the now-banned Liberal Publishing House.
Also sentenced were writer Than Duc Thach, who was handed a 12-year prison term, upheld on appeal on March 24, by the People’s Court of Nghe An province on Dec. 15, 2020 for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”
Independent Journalists Association (IJA) members Nguyen Tuong Thuy, vice president of the association, was arrested on May 24, 2020, and Le Huu Minh Tuan was arrested on June 12, 2020.
They followed IJA founder and president Pham Chi Dung—arrested on Nov. 26, 2016—into custody, with all three now sentenced to a total of 37 years in prison on charges of spreading information opposing the State.
Facebook users and bloggers were also subject during the year to heightened surveillance and harassment by police sometimes dressed in civilian clothes, and to travel bans, forced interrogations, and assaults, according to the report.
Vietnamese authorities were aided in their efforts to repress political opposition during the reporting year by U.S.-based social media platforms Facebook, Google, and YouTube, which “complied with the Vietnamese government’s escalating demand to censor dissidents,” the Vietnamese Human Rights Network said in its report.
According to government sources, Facebook during the last four months of 2020 removed nearly 4,500 offending articles and 290 “fake accounts posting false information propagating against the Party and State.”
Google meanwhile removed more than 30,000 illegal videos and 24 “reactionary channels” on YouTube, government sources cited by the rights group said.
The Vietnam Human Rights Network noted that on Feb. 22, 2021, Vietnam’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister announced Vietnam’s candidacy for membership in the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, saying that Vietnam respects the “rights and fundamental freedoms” of its people.
“This assertion does not surprise those who are familiar with the long-established propaganda policy of the Vietnamese government who always seeks to manipulate international forums to offset their poor record of human rights,” the rights group said.