Diplomats, human rights groups and politicians in the United States and Australia have demanded the release of the prominent human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, who was arrested on Wednesday.
The head of the EU mission in Hanoi, Bruno Angelet, said that the arrest was a particular shock as it coincided with the EU’s annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam.
Amnesty International said the timing of the arrest was worrying and could signal the start of a broader crackdown.
The former political prisoner and pro-democracy activist was arrested on Wednesday and charged with conducting propaganda against the state, which can carry a lengthy prison term.
“Nguyen Van Dai is a brave and passionate activist who has been raising awareness domestically and internationally about human rights violations in a country that tolerates no dissent,” said Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Champa Patel.
“His arrest highlights Vietnam’s spurious commitment to human rights. He must be immediately and unconditionally released.”
She said the timing of his arrest may be related to preparations for a highly sensitive Communist Party congress expected next month, in which new leaders will be announced for the party and state.
The German embassy in Hanoi requested the immediate release of Mr Dai.
US Congressman Alan Lowenthal, who represents a district in southern California with a large Vietnamese
population, wrote to the Secretary of State, John Kerry, to ask for more pressure from Washington for all the charges to be dropped.
“Sadly this is just the latest example of the failed human rights record of the Hanoi government and casts a stark
spotlight on the fact that cases of human rights abuse and repression are the government-sponsored norm in Vietnam, not the exception,” he said.
The Australian MP, Bernie Ripoll, described Mr Dai as a courageous and passionate fighter for democracy and said he had written to the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, to request his release.
EU representatives expressed concern to their Vietnamese counterparts the day before Mr Dai’s arrest about the state of political and civil rights in the country.
“The EU raised the issues of restrictions to freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom of assembly. It reiterated its serious concerns about harassment, arrest and detention of human rights defenders, activists and bloggers,” said a statement released after the meeting.
It is also mentioned a recent series of assaults on human rights advocates, including a violent attack on Mr Dai and three of his associates on December 6 after they had addressed a human rights workshop south of the capital.
Failure of dialogue
However, some groups say the arrest of Mr Dai exposes the failure of the EU, and other outsiders, to have any effect on a state that seems intent on stifling dissent.
“The problem is that the human rights dialogue takes place once a year. (The Vietnamese) can say anything they want in the talks, and immediately afterwards they come back with aggressive tactics to suppress the facts,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
The European Union has been accused of rushing to sign a free trade agreement with Vietnam without doing enough to secure Vietnam’s compliance with its international commitments on civil rights.
Some analysts suspect that Vietnam refrained from high profile trials of government critics while it was negotiating trade deals with Brussels and Washington – both of which were completed in recent weeks.
They worry that it now feels unrestrained in its efforts to crush civil rights activists and other dissidents.