Viet Nam: Surge in number of prisoners of conscience, new research shows

The number of prisoners of conscience unjustly jailed across Viet Nam has surged by one third to 128 in signs of a growing crackdown on peaceful activism, new research by Amnesty International reveals today.

The Vietnamese government holds at least 128 prisoners of conscience in prisons across the country, a sharp rise from the 97 identified last year. Detention conditions remain appalling, with evidence of prisoners being tortured and otherwise ill-treated, routinely held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, kept in squalid conditions, and denied medical care, clean water, and fresh air.

The Vietnamese authorities are clearly becoming more thin-skinned by the day. It’s their own citizens who are paying the terrible price, simply because of something they said or someone they met.
Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia

Among these prisoners of conscience are an increasing number of people jailed for comments made on social media platforms such as Facebook, who now represent almost 10 percent of those jailed. With a new and deeply repressive Cybersecurity Law having taken effect on 1 January 2019, the use of invasive surveillance methods to target perceived critics is likely to intensify.

“This research shows Viet Nam’s tightening stranglehold on every area of public and private life,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Director for East and Southeast Asia at Amnesty International.

“Beyond crushing any sign of political opposition, the Vietnamese authorities are also going after anyone who challenges corruption or wants to improve communities through human rights work and activism. The right to speak one’s mind is at risk.”

The list, which likely underestimates the exact number of prisoners of conscience, includes lawyers, bloggers, human rights defenders, environmental activists and pro-democracy campaigners – all of whom were jailed solely for peacefully exercising their human rights. Many were handed long jail sentences after farcical trials, and were often detained for lengthy periods even before charges were brought against them.

“The Vietnamese authorities are clearly becoming more thin-skinned by the day. It’s their own citizens who are paying the terrible price simply because of something they said or someone they met,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

A new penal code took effect in Viet Nam in 2018. Like the previous one, it contains vague and overly broad provisions that are often used to prosecute activists and other perceived critics. At least 34 people on this list were prosecuted under provisions from the new penal code.

US pressed to challenge Viet Nam at human rights dialogue this week

This new research comes as Viet Nam seeks closer diplomatic and economic ties with the United States and the European Union.

Mother Mushroom’s release was a huge relief - but the price of her freedom was exile, and the whole operation was a convenient diversion from the many dozens still languishing behind bars.
Nicholas Bequelin

This week, US representatives will visit Vietnam to participate in a ‘human rights dialogue’ with Vietnamese counterparts. The US-Vietnam ‘human rights dialogue’ has been held regularly since 2006, after a two-year hiatus. In October 2018, prisoner of conscience Mẹ Nấm, known by her blogging name Mother Mushroom, was released in the margins of a visit by then US defence secretary Gen. James Mattis.

“The rising number of prisoners of conscience shows the Vietnamese authorities’ duplicity when it comes to engaging in official discussions on human rights,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

“Mother Mushroom’s release was a huge relief - but the price of her freedom was exile, and the whole operation was a convenient diversion from the many dozens still languishing behind bars.”

A current prisoner of conscience, Tran Hoang Phuc, is in jail even though his peaceful activism was recognised by the United States in the past. Phuc was a member of the US’ Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) and was invited to meet former President Barack Obama during his state visit to Viet Nam in May 2016, although authorities denied him access to the meeting.

A pro-democracy and environmental activist, Phuc was arrested a year later, in June 2017. Tried on charges of ‘conducting propaganda against the state’ for making and sharing videos perceived to be critical of the government on social media, he was sentenced to six years in prison, followed by four years under house arrest.

“Phuc stands as a symbol for how Vietnam treats some of its brightest and most engaged citizens,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

“The authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.”

At the upcoming dialogue, the US government should reiterate at the highest levels that without real progress on human rights there are limits to how far the US-Vietnam relationship can go. That progress should be measured by concrete actions, including the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience.