“Tougher penalties for government critics” – report

Vietnamese police are regularly accused of abuse by human rights activists.

The police look set to gain even further powers to crack down on government critics.

The Vietnamese government is planning even harsher penalties to stifle dissent and arrest its critics, according to a report by the New York based organisation, Human Rights Watch.

The group called on the United States and other signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to help stop proposed legislation that would add more penalties to what it called an already draconian criminal code.

HRW said a recent public statement by the public security minister, General Tran Dai Quang, had revealed the extent to which vague national security laws are being used to silence bloggers and other government critics. It warned that repression was now likely to be intensified.

General Quang told the National Assembly that from June 2012 until November 2015 the police had received, arrested, and dealt with 1,410 cases involving 2,680 people who violated national security.

He added that opposition activists had illegally established more than 60 groups and organisations in the name of democracy and human rights, involving some 350 participants from 50 cities and provinces.

Harsher approach

“The Vietnam government’s announcement of thousands of arrests, while admitting that it is targeting democracy and human rights groups, is deeply troubling,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW. “This suggests the government is massively overusing the country’s repressive national security laws to criminalise peaceful expression and persecute critics.”

The proposed legislation, already tabled at the rubber stamp National Assembly, aims to impose a revised penal code and code of criminal procedure that would lead to even harsher prison terms for democracy activists.

Bloggers and other government critics say they have already detected signs of a harsher approach to dissent from the police, with violent attacks reported by those involved in recent protests and confrontations with the police.

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Further trials, are harsher sentences, against political activists, can be expected.

They worry that now that the TPP negotiations are completed, the authorities will feel less constrained by US pressure in their handling of democracy activists.

Some 14 bloggers were released because of interventions by the US during the last two years of trade negotiations, although many more remain in prison.

Human Rights Watch says the status of each of the 2,680 people mentioned by General Quang should be clarified as soon as possible. It says the Vietnamese government should release full information on each of the cases.

HRW says that Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded laws against peaceful political and religious dissidents.

It cites some of the following examples: “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” (penal code article 79, penalty up to death sentence); “undermining national unity policy” (article 87, penalty up to 15 years in prison); “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 88, penalty up to 20 years).

Attacked, divided and isolated

Among the harsher provisions proposed is a new clause that says any person thought to be preparing to commit such a crime shall be subject to between one and five years of imprisonment.

“Current laws are bad enough and often used arbitrarily by the government to silence critics,” Adams said. “But to imprison someone for up to five years just because the government thinks they may speak out or organise dissent is simply absurd.”

He says that labour activists, such as Do Thi Minh Hanh, who was arrested for helping organise a wildcat strike, and then released during the TPP negotiations, could simply be re-arrested on suspicion that he might organise another strike.

General Quang, in his speech, said the police had attacked, divided and isolated leading figures in the opposition movement who were trying to gather forces in the form of civil society organisations.

He said the police intention was to “prevent any plan to form and publicise domestic opposition political organizations, as well as activities that form and publicise illegal groups and organisations on the Internet.”

Activists say the political mood is becoming increasingly tense in the run-up to the Communist Party congress planned for January.

Political infighting behind the scenes amongst party bosses, and a taboo on reporting internal conflict in the party, is thought to be behind an increase in threats and harassment directed at democracy activists.