Vietnamese bloggers and rights activists are being beaten, threatened, and intimidated with impunity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Vietnamese government should order an end to all attacks and hold those responsible accountable. Donor governments should tell the Vietnamese authorities to end the crackdown, and that repressing internet freedom, peaceful speech, and activism will carry consequences.
The 65-page report, “No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam,” highlights 36 incidents in which unknown men in civilian clothes beat rights campaigners and bloggers between January 2015 and April 2017, often resulting in serious injuries. Many victims reported that beatings occurred in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to intervene.
“It’s bad enough that activists in Vietnam have to risk prison for speaking out, but now they have to risk their safety on a daily basis simply for exercising their basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnamese government needs to make it clear that it will not tolerate this kind of behavior and bring to an end this campaign against rights campaigners.”
Human Rights Watch has documented a strategy of beating bloggers and rights activists across the country, including in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Vung Tau, as well as in provinces such as Quang Binh, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Binh Duong, Lam Dong, and Bac Giang.
In many cases, assaults have occurred in public view on Vietnam’s streets, such as in the beating of environmental activist La Viet Dung, in July 2016, who was attacked on his way home from a social event with the No-U Football Club in Hanoi. Unknown men struck Dung with a brick and fractured his skull.
In May 2014, unknown men beat rights activist Tran Thi Nga on the street in Hanoi with an iron rod, breaking her right knee and left arm. Assaults also occurred in public spaces such as in a café. In June 2016, an unknown man punched democracy campaigner Nguyen Van Thanh in the face in a café in Da Nang. When police arrived, instead of investigating the assault they detained Nguyen Van Thanh for several hours and questioned him about his political writings.
In other cases, unknown men took activists into cars or vans, beat them, and abandoned them in a deserted area. For instance, in April 2017 a group of men in civilian clothes wearing surgical masks abducted rights activists Huynh Thanh Phat and Tran Hoang Phuc in Ba Don (Quang Binh province), took them into a van and drove away. The men used belts and sticks to whip Phat and Phuc in the van and then abandoned them in a forest. In February 2017, a group of men in civilian clothes abducted rights activists Nguyen Trung Ton and his friend Nguyen Viet Tu, also in Ba Don, dragged them into a van and drove away. The men stripped off Ton’s and Tu’s clothes, covered their heads with their jackets, and then hit them with iron tubes before abandoning them in a forest. Nguyen Trung Ton suffered multiple injuries and underwent surgery in the hospital afterward.
“The fact that thugs abducted activists in broad daylight, forced them into vans, and beat them demonstrates the impunity with which activists are persecuted,” said Adams. “The Vietnamese government should understand that tolerance of these violent attacks will lead to lawlessness and chaos instead of the social order and stability it says it is striving for.”
Activists have also been beaten after participating in public events, such as pro-environment protests, demonstrations to call for the release of fellow activists, or human rights-related events. In December 2015, rights campaigner Nguyen Van Dai went to give a talk about human rights and the constitution at a parish in Nam Dan district (Nghe An). As Nguyen Van Dai and three fellow activists were leaving the area, a group of men wearing surgical masks stopped their taxi, dragged them out of the car, and beat them.
Even the act of showing solidarity by visiting the houses of former political prisoners or welcoming a political prisoner home has triggered violence against activists. In August 2015, a group of bloggers and activists including Tran Thi Nga, Chu Manh Son, Truong Minh Tam, Le Thi Huong, Phan Van Khanh, and Le Dinh Luong went to Lam Dong to visit former political activist Tran Minh Nhat after he was released following four years of imprisonment for allegedly being affiliated with a banned overseas political party. As the activists were leaving town in different buses, unknown men in civilian clothes got onto the buses, dragged them off, and beat them in public.
In all but one case included in this report, Human Rights Watch has found that no perpetrator has been identified and prosecuted – despite the fact that victims often report their beating to the police. On the contrary, some victims, including activists Nguyen Van Dai and Tran Thi Nga, were later arrested and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code. This raises the question about the relationship the authorities have with the assailants in these cases, which range from apparent passive tolerance to active collaboration.
The report draws on incidents reported in foreign media including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, the BBC, Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, social media including Facebook and YouTube, politically independent websites such as Dan Lam Bao (Citizen Journalism), Dan Luan (Citizen Discussion), Viet Nam Thoi Bao (Vietnam Times), Tin Mung Cho Nguoi Ngheo (Good News for the Poor), Defend the Defenders, and individual blogs. Many of the assaults included in this report have never been published in English. They are also not reported in Vietnamese state-affiliated media.
“State media censorship drives many peaceful critics in Vietnam to express their concerns online,” said Adams. “This pattern of assaults on bloggers and activists is clearly intended to silence critics, who in many cases have no other way to voice legitimate concerns.”
A recent increase in recorded beatings coincided with a temporary decrease in politically motivated arrests during the period in which Vietnam was negotiating with the United States over participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Vietnam’s human rights record was a major focus of the negotiations and US congressional debate. It is possible that the government of Vietnam wanted to show a decrease in political arrests and trials but still pursued measures to crack down on dissent. Ironically, many of the victims of beatings were former political prisoners, including Tran Minh Nhat, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Chu Manh Son, and Mai Thi Dung. However, recent evidence suggests that a new surge of arrests has occurred in tandem with continued beatings of activists.
“These brave activists and bloggers suffer persecution on a daily basis, yet they do not give up their cause,” said Adams. “International donors and trade partners with Vietnam should support their struggle by urging the Vietnamese government to stop the beatings and to hold these violent assailants accountable.”
Published on HRW on June 18, 2017.