PARIS, 31st July 2017 (VCHR) – The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) strongly condemns the arrests of four prominent human rights activists on Sunday 30th July, in an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, assembly and religion in Vietnam. Phạm Văn Trội, Pastor Nguyễn Trung Tôn, Trương Minh Đức and Nguyễn Bắc Truyển are charged with subversion under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code which carries sentences of up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.
On 30.7.2017, the Ministry of Public Security announced online that the four men are amongst a group of six who will be prosecuted in the case of “Nguyễn Văn Đài and his accomplices for activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s government.” The other two are human rights lawyer Nguyễn Văn Đài and his assistant Lê Thu Hà. Both have been in custody since December 2015 on charges of “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (Article 88 of the Criminal Code). Following today’s announcement, however, they now face the much more serious charge of subversion under Article 79.
“Today’s arrests, coming on the heels of the harsh convictions of Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh and Trần Thị Nga, show Vietnam’s grim determination to suppress the human rights movement once and for all” said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “By detaining these dedicated human rights defenders, Vietnam is clearly aiming to nip the movement in the bud. Vietnam should immediately release these prisoners and cease this frenzied crack-down on dissent”.
The arrests on Sunday were made in a closely coordinated Police operation involving scores of Security Police. Phạm Văn Trội was arrested at his home in Hanoi, Pastor Tôn at his home in Thanh Hóa, and Trương Minh Đức in Ho Chi Minh City as he and his wife were buying medicines near their home. Police threw him into a car, and took the couple to the Security Police Investigations Bureau at 235 Nguyễn Văn Cừ Street, where they read out an arrest warrant against Trương Minh Đức for “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s government.” His wife, Nguyễn Thị Kim Thanh said the warrant was dated 27th July. She asked the Police to give her a copy, but they refused. Nguyễn Bắc Truyển was also arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday. Police searched the men’s homes and confiscated documents and personal items.
All four are former political prisoners, detained for their human rights activities under vaguely-worded “national security” clauses in Vietnam’s Criminal Code. Phạm Văn Trội, born 1972, was sentenced to four years in prison and four years house arrest in 2009 for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (Article 88 of the Criminal Code) after he and others protested against Chinese encroachments on the Paracel and Spratly islands. Pastor Nguyễn Trung Tôn, born in 1971, was sentenced to two years in prison and two years house arrest in 2011 under the same charge. He is chairman of the unofficial “Brotherhood for Democracy” (Hội Anh Em Dân Chủ) founded by Nguyễn Văn Đài. In February 2017, Pastor Tôn was abducted and brutally beaten by hired thugs, and has suffered repeated harassments. Trương Minh Đức, born in 1960, is a journalist, former correspondent for state-run newspapers such as Tuổi Trẻ, Thanh Niên and Pháp Luật, and a labour rights activist. Arrested in 2007 for writing articles denouncing official corruption, he was condemned to five years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” (Article 258 of the Criminal Code). Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, born 1968, head of an association of former religious and political prisoners, served three and a half years in prison from 2006 – 2010 under Article 88 of the Criminal Code.
In 2009, following a submission filed by the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared the detention of Phạm Văn Trội and Trương Minh Đức to be a violation of international law because their actions “merely represent the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of assembly and opinion and expression”.
This wave of arrests marks a new height in an alarming escalation of repression against human rights defenders, bloggers, civil society activists and followers of independent religions in Vietnam over the past few months. In June and July 2017 alone, detained, deported and exported the following human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists: two prominent women activists, blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh and land/labour rights defender Trần Thị Nga were sentenced respectively to 10 and 9 years in prison (on 29th June and 25th July); dissident Lê Định Lượng was arrested in Nghệ An on charges of “subversion” (24 July); French-Vietnamese dissident and former political prisoner Phạm Minh Hoàng was stripped of his Vietnamese nationality and deported to France (25th June). Whilst the early release of Lutheran Pastor Nguyễn Công Chính on July 28th after serving five years of an 11-year sentence was a welcome development, his release was conditioned on his immediate departure for the United States. Pastor Chính must complete his prison sentence if ever he returns to Vietnam.
This crack-down is reinforced by Vietnam’s use of the law to reduce civil society space and criminalize the exercise of human rights. In July 2017, the Ministry of the Interior made public draft regulations regarding sanctions, including fines of up to 60 million VNĐ (US$ 2,640) on anyone who commits “administrative violations in the realm of belief or religion”. These regulations, if adopted as such, will virtually outlaw the activities of “non-registered” religious groups by exposing their members to penalties and exorbitant fines.
“Vietnam uses repressive legislation to justify its relentless crackdown on dissidents and human rights defenders,” said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “The Government must use the ongoing revision of the Criminal Code to abrogate Articles 79, 88 and 258, and repeal all other laws and regulations that impede the exercise of freedom of opinion, expression, assembly and religion or belief”.