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Vietnam: Fledgling Democracy Movement Under Threat

Vietnam: Fledgling Democracy Movement Under Threat

Hundreds Join Groundbreaking Campaign Calling for Basic Rights

(New York) – The Vietnamese government must end its harassment of members of a fledgling human rights and democracy movement, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since early April, shortly before the Vietnamese Communist Party held its tenth National Congress, hundreds of people in Vietnam have signed on to public appeals calling for respect of basic human rights, a multiparty political system, and freedom of religion and political association.

A wide array of Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, former political prisoners, former Communist Party officials, veterans, academics, teachers, nurses, engineers, writers, businesspeople and many ordinary citizens have signed the two appeals: the “Appeal for Freedom of Political Association” of April 6; and the “2006 Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam” of April 8 (also known as the “2006 Democracy Manifesto”).

“It’s extraordinary that hundreds of citizens across Vietnam have boldly shown their support for political change in a written petition,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “In Vietnam, the mere act of signing such documents routinely triggers a police investigation, detention and often imprisonment.”

While much smaller groupings of prominent Vietnamese dissidents have signed appeals for human rights and democracy in the past decade, this is the first time in recent years that so many people have signed on to public petitions.

The Vietnamese authorities have already begun to respond, but with harassment rather than dialogue. After the release of the first appeal on April 6, police briefly detained and interrogated several of the more prominent activists who signed it. These activists include writer Do Nam Hai (who also goes under the pen name Phuong Nam), Mennonite clergyman the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, and lawyer Nguyen Van Dai. Police used tape to seal Do Nam Hai’s computer and instructed the local Internet service provider to cut off his Internet access.

At the same time, activists have launched an unsanctioned newspaper, Tu Do Ngon Luan (“Free Expression”), which has published two editions since April. In addition, a number of reporters and bloggers have formed an underground media group called the Free Journalists Association of Vietnam.

Among the initiators of the April appeals are prominent dissidents and former political prisoners from Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, including academic Hoang Minh Chinh, teacher Nguyen Khac Toan, Hoa Hao Buddhist leader Le Quang Liem, professor Nguyen Chinh Ket and Catholic priests the Rev. Chan Tin and the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly.

The group’s first public statement, an “Appeal for Freedom of Political Association,” was released on April 6 and signed by 116 individuals. On April 8, the “2006 Democracy Manifesto” was released and signed by 118 people. The five-page manifesto calls for: a pluralistic and multiparty political system; freedom of information and of opinion; freedom of religion; freedom to participate in independent labor unions; and freedom to assemble, form associations and political parties and stand for elected offices. As of May 8 – the one-month anniversary of the manifesto – 424 citizens had signed on.

On April 30, the activists, calling themselves the “04/08/06 Group” – the date of the manifesto – issued a protest letter signed by 178 people to denounce the harassment of Do Nam Hai, the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang and Nguyen Van Dai. In that letter, two prominent Catholic priests, the Rev. Phan Van Loi and former political prisoner the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly, threatened to go on indefinite hunger strike if the arrests and harassment continued.

The two appeals were issued as Vietnam conducted its tenth Communist Party National Congress from April 18-24, at which time a significant turnover in the Politburo was announced, with several key aging party veterans being replaced by younger members.

“This is a test for the new Politburo,” said Adams. “Will a younger generation allow greater latitude for dissent and pluralism, or will they continue to crack down on basic civil and political rights?”

With its bid to join the World Trade Organization still pending, Vietnam is seeking greater legitimacy and integration into the global economy. The Vietnamese government’s adherence to international human rights standards will be a factor in the U.S. State Department’s decision, expected in September, whether to remove its designation of Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” for violations of religious freedom.

“Vietnam cannot expect to gain international legitimacy if it continues to clamp down on calls for human rights, political pluralism and religious freedom,” said Adams.

Background

Despite Vietnam’s ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the one-party state, dominated by the Vietnamese Communist Party, is intolerant of criticism. Media, political parties, religious organizations and labor unions are not allowed to exist without official sanction and oversight or to take actions that the government or the Communist Party consider contrary to their policies.

Activists who have used the Internet to call for democracy or criticize the government have been imprisoned on the basis of loosely defined national security provisions in Vietnam’s penal code, which violate international standards.

Internet dissidents have been imprisoned on charges of espionage or other national security crimes after using the Internet to disseminate opinions critical of the government. The journalist Nguyen Vu Binh is currently serving a five-year sentence, and Dr. Pham Hong Son is serving a seven-year sentence.

In mid-April, two well known journalists, Duong Phu Cuong and Nguyen Huy Cuong, were detained and harassed at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City and prevented from attending a conference in Manila on free expression in Asian cyberspace.

In late February, Do Nam Hai and Nguyen Khac Toan, a democracy activist and “cyber-dissident” who had just been released from prison, were arrested at an Internet café in Hanoi and briefly detained. Police inspected Toan’s e-mails, printing out a number of them. The two men were then taken to the police station and questioned for several hours. Toan was reportedly charged with violating conditions of his house arrest (after his release from prison he was required to serve five years of house arrest). Do Nam Hai was reportedly charged with violating Decree 55, which prohibits people from accessing banned Internet websites.

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