Viet Nam: Pro-democracy bloggers face harsh penalties in upcoming trial

Urgent Appeal

Bangkok-Paris-Geneva, August 1, 2012. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint FIDH and OMCT programme, together with the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), call on the Vietnamese authorities to drop all charges against three pro-democracy bloggers and release them immediately and unconditionally. Mr. Nguyen Van Hai (aka Dieu Cay), Mr. Phan Thanh Hai and Ms. Ta Phong Tan are scheduled to be tried by the Ho Chi Minh People’s Court on August 7, 2012 at 8am.

Putting these bloggers on trial during summer holidays behind closed doors reveals the government’s fear of media and international scrutiny. On July 31, 2012, the Observatory and VCHR wrote to the European Union delegation to Viet Nam and to 31 embassies of African, Asian, European, and Latin American states [1], urging them to call on Viet Nam to drop the charges against the bloggers and to send high-level observers to access the courtroom in order to attend the trial on August 7.

The three outspoken bloggers have been charged under Article 88.2 of the Criminal Code for “conducting propaganda against the state” for their online writings and criticisms of the government. They face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted. Article 88 is among several repressive provisions in Vietnamese law that are routinely used to criminalise free speech and imprison peaceful dissidents.

During his detention, Mr. Dieu Cay has reportedly faced intense pressure from the authorities to plead guilty to the charges laid against him, which he has consistently refused. His lawyers also stated that Mr. Dieu Cay went on hunger strike in prison in March 2012 to protest his detention, and had to be hospitalised. He was previously convicted on trumped-up charges of ‘tax evasion’ after a manifestly unfair and closed trial in 2009 and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared his detention to be arbitrary and in violation of international law [2]. His current prolonged detention began on October 19, 2010, the same day he completed the prison terms he received in 2009. Mr. Phan Thanh Hai and Ms. Ta Phong Tan have also been in pre-trial detention in Ho Chi Minh City since their arrest, respectively on October 18, 2010 and on September 5, 2011.

In his online writings, Mr. Dieu Cay, one of the founders of the Club of Free Journalists, calls for greater respect for human rights and democratic reforms. He is also known for his criticisms of China’s claims over disputed islands in the South China Sea. In January 2008, Mr. Dieu Cay and other activists staged an anti-China demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City. Before their arrests, Mr. Hai has published a number of articles on his blog, including one that criticised and called for the repeal of Article 88 of the Criminal Code, while Ms. Tan has blogged about police abuse and violations of human rights by the State.

Vietnam plans to run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, but it no longer even makes an effort to put up a façade of compliance with international human rights law, as it regularly parades human rights defenders before kangaroo courts and makes a crime out of free speech”, said Mr. Vo Van Ai, President of VCHR.

In addition, on July 30, 2012, Ms. Ta Phong Tan’s mother (Mrs. Dang Thi Kim Lieng) immolated herself outside the People’s Committee headquarters in Bac Lieu to protest her daughter’s unfair imprisonment. She had suffered repeated Police harassments and interrogations since her daughters’ arrest. She died later the same day.

Since 2009, Vietnamese human rights and pro-democracy bloggers have been harassed, intimidated, arrested and jailed for their online writings and activism. Those imprisoned for their Internet activities include Mr. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Mr. Nguyen Tien Trung, Mr. Le Thang Long, and Mr. Tran Kim Anh [3]. On July 13, Government agents attacked bloggers Nguyen Hoang Vi, Bui Thi Minh Hang and Lee Nguyen while they were driving back after a birthday party in Ho Chi Minh City. Mrs. Duong Thi Tan, Mr. Dieu Cay’s wife, was also in the car when the attack occurred.

Bloggers and other netizens who participated in or tried to attend anti-China demonstrations in several cities in early July also faced intimidation. On July 1, a group of knife-wielding men, allegedly led by the son of a local official, entered the house of outspoken blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh in Hanoi and attacked him, after he came home from the demonstrations. Bloggers Ms. Nguyen Hoang Vi and Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy were among several people briefly taken into police custody and interrogated during or after the anti-China demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City. Following an appeal to support the July 1 demonstrations launched by Venerable Thich Quang Do, leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Police forcibly impeded Thich Quang Do and at least sixteen UBCV monks from joining demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City and Hue. Several monks were assaulted by Police.

Blogger Nguyen Xuan Dien, whose online writings focus on abuses of land rights, has recently been questioned by the authorities over his Internet activities. It also appears that his blog had been attacked by hackers. As of writing, articles no longer appear on Mr. Dien’s blog [4].

The escalation of crackdown on online dissent comes amidst a government effort to adopt a new Decree on Management, Provision, and Use of Internet Services and Information on the Network that, if passed in its current form, would grant the authorities expansive discretionary power to censor, control and possibly criminalise Internet use in Viet Nam. In June 2012, the UN Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution affirming the right to freedom of expression must be protected online, and that States are called on to “promote and facilitate access to the Internet”.

Such prosecution of ‘speech crimes’ will only worsen if the new draft Internet decree is adopted, and the international community must urge Viet Nam to break away from its already atrocious record in respecting freedom of expression”, warned Debbie Stothard, Deputy Secretary-General of FIDH.

Judicial proceedings behind closed doors not only violate Viet Nam’s obligations under international law, they also clearly indicate that the judicial authorities have no intention to try the defenders according to international fair trial standards. But the bloggers’ pleas for justice will be heard even behind those doors”, said Gerald Staberock, Secretary-General of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

Read more