United Nations concerned at shrinking space for freedom of expression in Viet Nam

Posted on August 3, 2012


3 August 2012 –The United Nations human rights office today voiced concern at reports of the ongoing persecution of bloggers and people who use the Internet and other means to freely express their opinions in Viet Nam.“We are concerned by what appears to be increasingly limited space for freedom of expression in Viet Nam,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told reporters in Geneva.

The office voiced particular concern that the upcoming trial of Nguyen Van Hai (also known as Dieu Cay), Pan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan for “conducting propaganda” against the State is directly linked to their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, including their online publications about social and human rights issues.

Mr. Nguyen Van Hai and Mr. Pan Thanh Hai have been in detention since 2010 while Ms. Ta Phong Tan has been detained since September 2011. The three face charges under Article 88 of the Criminal Code and could face penalties ranging from seven to 16 years’ imprisonment.

“The trial, which was scheduled for 7 August and was just postponed indefinitely, will reportedly be closed and witnesses will not be called, raising concerns that the process will not comply with fair trial guarantees,” said Ms. Shamdasani.

“A number of arrests and harsh convictions in recent years suggest a disturbing trend of curbing freedom of expression, opinion and association of bloggers, journalists and human rights activists who question Government policies in a peaceful manner,” she added.

OHCHR urged the Government to fulfil its commitments with respect to ensuring fair trial guarantees and to consider promptly releasing the accused for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, opinion and association.

Blogger Trial Put Off


Vietnam pushes back the trial of three bloggers following a widely reported self-immolation protest.

Undated photo of Ho Chi Minh city courthouse.

Vietnamese authorities on Friday postponed a trial for three prominent Vietnamese bloggers, claiming their lawyers had called for the delay following the self-immolation death of the mother of one of the defendants.

But the attorneys for the three activists denied ever having made any request to the court in Ho Chi Minh city which was scheduled to begin the trial on Tuesday.

Ta Phong Tan, a Catholic former policewoman, Nguyen Van Hai, better known by his online alias Dieu Cay, and Phan Thanh Hai, known as Anh Ba Saigon, are facing a charge of conducting propaganda against the state.

The postponement came as authorities on Friday launched an investigation into the self-immolation death of Tan’s mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, who set herself ablaze in front of a municipal building in Bac Lieu province earlier this week in protest of her daughter’s trial, according to Tan’s sister Ta Minh Tu.

Tu said her mother was also troubled by a threatened eviction from her town over a personal land dispute which the government had not resolved, despite numerous petitions sent to officials.

Phan Thanh Hai’s lawyer, Doan Thai Duyen Hai, told RFA that a court clerk had contacted him and the other two lawyers to inform them that the trial had been postponed and to ask that they pick up the official notification from the courthouse.

“This afternoon I went to the court to learn the reason for the postponement and the date of the rescheduled trial,” he said. “The notice said the reason for delaying the trial was to ensure the rights of the defendants and their legal benefits as per their lawyers’ request.”

“I met with lawyer Nguyen Thanh Luong, who is defending blogger Ta Phong Tan, at the court and he told me that he had made a request that the appropriate legal procedures be respected, not for a postponement.”

No new date has been set for the trial, he said.

Washington has expressed concerns over Lieng’s death and called on Hanoi to release all three bloggers.

Blogger trial

The three bloggers are charged with “distorting the truth, denigrating the party and state” for politically critical blogging and for posting hundreds of articles on a banned website known as the “Free Journalists Club” of Vietnam.

Tan, who was a member of Vietnam’s ruling communist party before she became a freelance journalist, frequently blogged about abuses in Vietnam’s legal system.

Phan Thanh Hai, 43, blogged on various issues including territorial disputes with China, environmentally sensitive bauxite-mining projects, a corruption scandal surrounding the state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin, and state harassment of dissidents.

Nguyen Van Hai was first detained in October 2008, after participating in anti-China protests ahead of the Beijing Olympics, and later sentenced to 30 months in jail on allegedly trumped-up tax evasion charges. He was originally scheduled to be released in October 2010.

His case was raised by U.S. President Barack Obama in a statement marking World Press Freedom in May this year.

The three bloggers face a maximum of 20 years in prison, based on the charges under Article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, a draconian provision that prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state.”

In the last three years, authorities in the one-party state have imprisoned more than a dozen prominent bloggers and activists for using the Internet to express their opinions and advance their causes.

Human Rights Watch has accused the government of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent, including by detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.

France-based Reporters Without Borders lists one-party Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet.”

Donors Should Not be “Partners in Crime” with Rights Abusers

Around the world, millions of people are locked up because of drug use. Some languish in prisons, some in compulsory drug detention centers. Few have access to effective, evidence-based treatment for drug dependency if they need it. The problem is not isolated in any one part of the world, but it is most pernicious when international donors and UN agencies promote and fund drug detention policies that systematically deny people the right to due process and healthcare, and ignore forced labor and psychological and physical abuse.

>> How I Escaped the Brothel in Cambodia: One Young Vietnamese Woman’s Story

The relationship of the US government and Laos is an example.

Earlier in June, with much fanfare, the U.S. Government pledged a new round of funding and collaboration in Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The U.S. committed $400,000 to support the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision to “upgrade the treatment of drug addicts at the Somsanga Treatment Center and at other centers.”

The name Somsanga should ring alarm bells. Human Rights Watch conducted research in Laos in 2011 as part of a series of investigations of drug detention centers. It was not easy. Laos is largely a closed country, which permits little free speech or scrutiny of its human rights record.

What the government and its donors describe as a voluntary “health-oriented” center arbitrarily detains people who use drugs – including those who are not dependent – as well as street children, the homeless, the mentally ill, and other undesirable populations behind high walls and barbed wire.

Somsanga holds most people against their will. They are detained by police or local militia, or “volunteered” by local communist commune authorities or family members who have the mistaken belief that the center offers therapeutic treatment, or who buckle under social pressure to make their village “drug free.” Once inside, they cannot leave. Some attempt or commit suicide by ingesting glass, swallowing soap, or hanging. As Maesa, a child who spent six months in Somsanga, told Human Rights Watch: “Some people think that to die is better than staying there.”

Upgrading drug treatment and tackling crime are worthy goals. But the U.S. should not so blithely ignore the Laos government’s history of human rights violations at the Somsanga Center. It needs to insist on development of stronger legal protections to ensure that people cannot be subject to arbitrary detention and torture, and on community and evidence-based drug dependency treatment.

Detention in government centers in the name of treatment and rehabilitation is not unique to Laos. As Human Rights Watch and other research has shown, hundreds of thousands people identified as drug users are held in drug detention centers in China, Vietnam and Cambodia too.

Nor are such centers and what goes on inside their locked doors and high walls the only human rights abuses associated with drug enforcement funding. Thirty-two countries worldwide retain the death penalty for drug offenses. China, Iran and Vietnam are among those that utilize the death penalty the most, and they all get drug enforcement assistance from international donors and the United Nations.

Governments and drug control agencies regularly announce successes in fighting the drug trade, counted in kilos of drugs seized and numbers of people prosecuted. But we rarely hear about the fate of those arrested, including how they came to be involved in the drug trade. Those sentenced to death become a statistic in drug enforcement “successes,” while passing simultaneously into human rights statistics documenting ongoing abuse.

It is a clear example of the wide gap between drug control and respect for human rights.

In recent years, due to the efforts of Harm Reduction International, Human Rights Watch and our colleagues and partners, there have been increasing calls to close all drug detention centers and end the death penalty for drugs.

But there has been little practical progress toward ending these abuses. UN agencies and international donors continue to fund activities inside drug detention centers, and to support drug enforcement efforts despite the human rights consequences.

Scant attention has been paid to the UN and international donors’ human rights obligations and ethical responsibilities with respect to drug control efforts they support, or indeed to safeguards to prevent them from effectively facilitating human rights abuses with their support.

A new report called “Partners in Crime” makes an important contribution to addressing this gap. In providing specific examples of financial and material support provided by UN and international donors for drug control efforts, and human rights concerns raised by such support, the report compels readers to think critically about government efforts to meet their shared responsibility to address drug use and drug-related crime. It should serve as a catalyst to ensure that all governments – including donors – and international actors move quickly to develop and support drug control policies that truly respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.

Rebecca Schleifer

UN expert urges rights-based approach in tackling Viet Nam’s challenges

Special Rapporteur on the effects of foreign debt on human rights, Cephas Lumina. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

30 March 2011 –While applauding the development gains made by Viet Nam, an independent United Nations human rights expert has stressed the need for the South-East Asian nation to ensure a human rights-based approach in addressing social and economic challenges.

“To fully ensure that principle, it is important that national economic and social policies and programmes are firmly anchored in a human rights-based framework that underscored participation, transparency and accountability,” Cephas Lumina said yesterday at the end of his first mission to Viet Nam.

“The citizens of Viet Nam are not only the main beneficiaries of the Government’s economic and social development programmes,” he said in a statement delivered in Hanoi, “they are also the most important stakeholders in the country’s development.”

Mr. Lumina, the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights, commended the Government on the “remarkable” progress it has achieved. Viet Nam has achieved three out of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) well ahead of schedule – halving the number of its poor, ensuring gender equality and making primary education available to all.

“With the demonstrated commitment of the Government and the continued support of its development partners, I believe that Viet Nam can achieve the remaining MDGs by the target date,” he stated, referring to the globally agreed deadline of 2015.

In the last decade, Viet Nam’s per capita income has risen from $390 in 2000 to $1,200 in 2010, and more than seven million jobs have been created. Viet Nam’s impressive success in socio-economic development is evidenced by its recent attainment of lower middle-income status.

“These achievements bear testimony to the political will of the Government to improve the socio-economic conditions of its people,” said Mr. Lumina, while adding that despite this commendable progress, the country faces a number of challenges, including those linked to its “lower middle-income” status.

He underscored that Viet Nam’s reliance on official development assistance (ODA) “is increasingly challenged by the decline of ODA at the global level and by the impact of the global economic downturn.”

On the sustainability of the country’s foreign debt and its effect on the MDGs, Mr. Lumina pointed out that the budget and trade deficits required urgent attention to ensure that social protection measures were not affected.

The expert, who reports to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in an independent and unpaid capacity, also warned that climate change posed a serious challenge to the country’s development efforts, given that the region is prone to environmental hazards and is vulnerable to sea-level rise.

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Viet Nam: UN expert urges stepped-up efforts to combat poverty