EU must press for more progress in key human rights areas

Press release

(Paris, Brussels) The European Union (EU) must urge Vietnam to make more progress in key human rights areas, including the release of political prisoners, an end to harassment and attacks against activists and human rights defenders, and legislative reform, FIDH and its member organization Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said today. FIDH and VCHR made their call ahead of the fifth EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, which is scheduled to be held in Hanoi on 15 December.

“In its rush to conclude negotiations for a free trade agreement with Vietnam, the EU has not only neglected to conduct a human rights impact assessment but also failed to demand an end to Hanoi’s ongoing rights violations. This human rights dialogue must be used to do just that.”

FIDH President Karim Lahidji

On 2 December, the EU and Vietnam finalized negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA). The EU carried out FTA negotiations without conducting a human rights impact assessment (HRIA), as required by EU laws and recommended by the European Ombudsman.

Since the previous EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue on 19 January 2015, Hanoi has released 11 high-profile political prisoners. However, most of them (Le Quoc Quan, Truong Duy Nhat, Pham Thi Loc, Le Thi Phuong Anh, Paulus Le Van Son, Nguyen Van Oai, Tran Minh Nhat, and Thai Van Dung) were freed upon completion of their prison terms. Ta Phong Tan was forced into exile in the US immediately after her release. Bloggers Hong Le Tho and Nguyen Quang Lap were initially detained on trumped-up charges of ‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state’ under Article 258 of the Criminal Code and then released pending further investigation. All of the released political prisoners should not have been detained or imprisoned in the first place.

In the meantime, authorities have continued to detain and imprison more activists. On 11 February, a court in Dong Nai Province sentenced activists Pham Minh Vu, Do Nam Trung, and Le Thi Phuong Anh to prison terms ranging from 12 to 18 months under Article 258 of the Criminal Code. On 21 September, police in Thai Binh Province detained former political prisoner and pro-democracy activist Tran Anh Kim. On 11 November, plainclothes police in Hanoi detained lawyer Tran Vu Hai for one day when he attempted to visit the city’s police chief to discuss a case of custodial death.

In total, there are about 130 political prisoners in jails across Vietnam - the largest number in Southeast Asia. Regrettably, no political prisoners were among the 18,298 inmates released as a result of a presidential amnesty that the government announced on 28 August, ahead of the 70th anniversary of Vietnam’s National Day (2 September).

One of the longest held political prisoners is Thich Quang Do, 87, the leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Vietnam’s oldest and largest religious organization. He remains under house arrest without charge and under police surveillance at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City. He has spent almost 30 years in detention for his peaceful advocacy of religious freedom and human rights.

The government also stepped up harassment and attacks against activists and human rights defenders since the start of the year. Plainclothes and uniformed police, as well as hired thugs, were responsible for the brutal beating of scores human rights defenders. Victims include: Christian Mennonite pastor Nguyen Hong Quang (18 January and March); Mennonite pastor Le Quang Du (26 March); activist and blogger Trinh Anh Tuan (22 April); activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen (11 May); human rights defender Dinh Quang Tuyen (19 May); activist Pham Thanh Nghien (2 June); activists Tran Minh Nhat and Chu Manh Son (8 and 17 November); lawyers Tran Thu Nam and Le Van Luan (3 November); lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and activists Ly Quang Son, Vu Van Minh, and Thang (6 November); and labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh and journalist Truong Minh Duc (22 November). Le Cong Cau, the leader of the Buddhist Youth Movement (BYM), an educational movement affiliated to the UBCV, has been harassed and threatened several times in 2015.

Authorities briefly detained blogger Dung Mai in mid-May and activist Nguyen Quang A on 2 September upon their respective return from abroad and prevented environmental rights defender Nguyen Hue Chi from leaving the country on 18 May. On 6 December, journalist Pham Thanh, blogger Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and activists Truong Van Dung and Le Sy Binh were also prevented from leaving the country.

Finally, police brutality against prisoners has also continued. According to blogger Trinh Anh Tuan, 226 people have died in custody as a result of police violence over the past three years in Vietnam.

FIDH and VCHR also call on the EU to demand Vietnam make more progress on legislative reforms in order to bring many of its repressive laws in line with its international obligations.

“The amendments to the Criminal Code are extremely disappointing because they have left the arsenal of legal tools of repression of civil and political rights intact. The EU must exert more pressure on Vietnam to foster a legal environment that promotes and respects individual rights and puts these rights above business interests.”

VCHR President Vo Van Ai

On 27 November, Vietnam’s National Assembly approved amendments to the Criminal Code that abolished the death penalty for seven crimes. The amendments, which take effect on 1 July 2016, eliminate capital punishment for: robbery; production and trade of fake food and medicine; drug production and possession; destruction of projects of national security importance; disobeying orders; and surrendering to the enemy. In addition, the death penalty will be replaced by life in prison for those who are charged with embezzlement or corruption if they pay back three quarters of their ill-gotten gains. Finally, capital punishment will not be imposed on persons who are more than 75 years old when they are charged with committing a crime or are put on trial. Despite the reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death, 15 offenses still carry the death penalty.

FIDH and VCHR welcome this positive development, but call on the EU to demand Vietnam take further steps towards the abolition of the death penalty. These steps would include establishing an official moratorium on all executions, ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and abolish capital punishment for all crimes.

Vietnam must also amend or repeal other provisions of the Criminal Code that are inconsistent with its obligations under international law. Provisions of the Criminal Code that fail to comply with international standards include: [1] Article 79 (‘activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’); Article 80 (‘spying’); Article 87 (‘undermining national solidarity, sowing divisions between religious and non-religious people’); Article 88 (‘conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’); and Article 258 (‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state’). The government has repeatedly used these clauses to punish acts of peaceful expression and to detain government critics. Articles 79 and 80 prescribe the death penalty.
In addition, the National Assembly is considering adopting more restrictive legislation.

The government introduced a 5th draft of a Law on Belief and Religion in the National Assembly without prior consultation with religious communities. The draft law contains provisions that authorize government interference in religious organizations’ internal affairs - such as the appointment of religious leaders and the choice of content of religious training or education. The proposed law also empowers the authorities to suspend religious festivals on grounds of ‘national defense or security’. It also contains vaguely worded provisions that could be used to discriminate against ethnic minorities and independent groups whose religion is perceived by the authorities as “foreign”. The National Assembly is expected to adopt the law with few amendments in early 2016.

Press contacts
FIDH: Mr. Andrea Giorgetta (English) - Tel: +66 886117722 (Bangkok)
FIDH: Mr. Arthur Manet (French, English, Spanish) - Tel: +33 672284294 (Paris)
VCHR: Ms. Penelope Faulkner (English, French, Vietnamese) - Tel. + 33 145983085 (Paris)
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