Bloggers hold ‘Human Rights Coffee’ talk on freedom of movement

Human Rights Coffee organized by the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers


(VNRN) – In another step in the development of an independent civil society in Vietnam, the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers on March 20 held a public roundtable discussion in Hanoi on the right to travel and freedom of movement, featuring numerous people whose passports had been confiscated.

The roundtable, called “Human Rights Coffee,” had as subject: “Citizens being banned from exiting for national security reason, seen from an international perspective.”

Earlier, the group had sent out a declaration alleging that the government targeted certain activists because they had been speaking out against Article 258 of the Vietnam Penal Code and talking about it to foreign diplomats and NGOs.

The declaration states, “After the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers released its ‘Anti-258 Statement’ and handed it to the United Nations Human Rights Council, embassies, and international non-government organizations … a great many Vietnamese citizens, who have never violated any law, have been denied exit from the nation without prior governmental permission.”

Article 258 of the Penal Code makes it a crime to “abuse democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”

The Network of Vietnamese Bloggers made a point of inviting the police and immigration officials to the roundtable, but none came.

A group of pro-government supporters, however, did attend and speak.

Four diplomats were also present: David Skowronski, Second Secretary of the Embassy of Australia; Felix Schwarz, Political Counselor and Consul, German Embassy; Elenore Kanter, Counsellor Head of Political and Trade Section, Embassy of Sweden; and Alex Jully, Attaché at European Union Delegation.

When the group arrived at the Cafe where they had reserved a room, the Cafe unexpectedly posted a sign stating it was closed for maintenance. The roundtable was thus held right outside.

Around the Cafe, attendants reported, police filmed and took pictures of the people who came to the roundtable.

The discussion was led by two bloggers who had been prevented from leaving the country and whose passports had been confiscated: Nguyen Ho Nhat Thanh [Nguyễn Hồ Nhật Thành], a Catholic blogger writing as Paulo Thanh Nguyen, and Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh [Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh], writing as Me Nam Gau or Me Nam[sometimes translated as Mother Mushroom], a former winner of Human Rights Watch‘s Hellman/Hammett grant for persecuted writers.

“National security has been used as a wide-ranging pretext by the Vietnamese government to ban people from leaving the country,” Thanh stated.

The diplomats also joined the conversation. Australian Skowronski spoke in Vietnamese and said his government always presses Vietnam on human rights.

Schwarz, from the German Embassy, shared his personal story of how, as a child, his relatives from East Germany could not come to visit his family in West German and his grandmother passed away.

“And when I was a child I didn’t understand that because I couldn’t understand why people shouldn’t be there when someone of the family died,” Schwarz said.

“And I am saying that because I believe that it’s very important that people should have the right to move freely within or throughout the world and they shouldn’t have a reason for that; not even a funeral should be a reason. They should just have the right to move.”

Recognizing that in every country there are criminals who are not allowed to have passports, Schwarz continued, “Speaking out on different topics, and having different opinion than the government is not a crime that allows the government to take away the passports.”

Dr. Nguyen Quang A, one of the country’s top economist and a former member of the Institutes of Development Studies think tank until it was disbanded by government decree, called the “national security” reason a “despotic measure.”

“If ‘national security’ were truly a concern for the government, they must inform the applicants as to the security reasons,” Quang A said.

The pro-government group also spoke. Reports differ as to what happened, but apparently one of the pro-government participant, Hoang Thi Nhat Le, started to accuse the organizers of opposing the government and was stopped for speaking outside the topic. Le, however, was able to address the diplomats and questioning them on instances in their countries where people were not allowed unfettered traveling.

The dispute between the two groups continued days after the roundtable. The pro-government group claim their free speech was muzzled when the moderator stopped, on relevance grounds, their representative from raising questions about the organizers’ activities.

The moderator, Nhu Quynh, reiterated that she couldn’t let the discussion go off on tangents, but invited the pro-government group back for later Human Rights Coffee talks.

Article 258, the penal code provision that the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers, has been used as the basis to detain or imprison dozens of political prisoners.

These range from religious activists such as Hmong Christians, to political bloggers such as Pham Viet Dao and Truong Duy Nhat recently, and even people who innocuously offended some high-ranking official, such as entertainment journalist Co Gai Do Long who wrote about a singer’s love life, but the love interest turned out to be the son of a police general.

Article 258 provides, “Those who abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens, shall be subject to warning, non-custodial reform for up to three years or a prison term of between six months and three years.”