The Vietnamese authorities must end their crackdown on independent election candidates and critical voices, said Amnesty International today ahead of the country’s National Assembly elections scheduled to take place on 23 May 2021.
In recent weeks, authorities have arrested and charged two independent candidates and one medical doctor under Article 117 of the Criminal Code for “making, storing, or spreading information, materials or items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam”, carrying potential prison sentences of between five and 20 years.
Amnesty International has also received multiple credible reports of many other individuals across Viet Nam being subjected to harassment and intimidation by police for their involvement in the election and for criticizing government policies, in a worrying trend which could deteriorate further ahead of the election date.
“The Vietnamese authorities must end this crackdown and allow everyone in Viet Nam to freely exercise their human rights without any fear of reprisals. The recent election of new leadership for the Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV) should have heralded an improvement on the respect for human rights in Viet Nam, but the indications to date suggest more of the same old violations and abuses,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research.
“While Viet Nam seeks to put itself forward for election to the UN Human Rights Council, the authorities are engaging in blatant and widespread human rights violations at home.”
“Viet Nam is obliged to respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights including the rights to freedom of expression and association, as well as media freedom. Authorities must ensure that election candidates – along with everyone else in Viet Nam – are treated equally and without discrimination. These are basic principles of the international human rights treaties which Viet Nam has voluntarily ratified,” added Emerlynne Gil.
Bogus charges proliferating ahead of election
On 27 March, authorities in Ha Noi arrested Le Trong Hung under Article 117, who had applied to be an independent (or ‘self-nominated’) candidate for a National Assembly seat in Ha Noi city. Le Trong Hung is a citizen journalist and a member of Chan Hung TV, a media group which broadcasts Facebook livestreams about social and political issues. According to his family, Le Trong Hung was arrested while walking in his neighbourhood and taken to his home by police who then searched the house. It is unknown where he is currently being detained.
On 10 March, authorities in Ninh Binh province arrested and charged Tran Quoc Khanh, who had also expressed his intention to run as an independent candidate for election, under Article 117.
It is unknown if he had formally registered as an election candidate. Prior to the arrest, Mr. Tran Quoc Khanh ran a popular social media account where he frequently commented on contemporary human rights and political issues in Viet Nam. In a livestream on 6 March he discussed critiques of government ministries and called on the Vietnamese government to respect the rule of law.
On 22 March, police from Nghe An province arrested medical doctor Nguyen Duy Huong for allegedly producing and spreading online content which the authorities said defamed senior leaders of the CPV. Doctor Huong used his Facebook account to write articles commenting on government policies. Although he was not an election candidate, his arrest occurred in the context of a deteriorating crackdown ahead of the election which appears to be targeting journalists and bloggers as well as independent election candidates.
Amnesty International has repeatedly stated that Article 117 violates Viet Nam’s international human rights obligations and that it should be repealed or substantially amended to comply with the rules set out under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Viet Nam is a state party.
“These charges are plainly bogus and have no place in a rights-respecting society. Article 117 should be repealed without delay and all three men charged under the provision should be released immediately. Authorities must drop all the charges against them,” added Emerlynne Gil.
Exemplifying the disproportionate sentences which government critics face under Article 117, on 30 March the People’s Court of Lam Dong Province convicted political activist Vu Tien Chi under Article 117 and sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment for a series of Facebook posts critical of the government.
Intimidation and harassment of activists on the rise
In addition to these criminal charges, other activists, bloggers and associations have faced an uptick in harassment and intimidation ahead of the election, often in connection with social media posts. According to reports received by Amnesty International, several other independent election candidates have also been subjected to harassment and intimidation by police.
Additionally, the organization has received credible reports that on 11 March, a human rights defender was arrested in front of her apartment and brought to a police station where she was detained for 15 hours. Police are reported to have interrogated her about her involvement in the upcoming election, and she was asked to sign a statement in which she promised to refrain from nominating herself as an independent candidate.
On Friday, 26 March she was again summoned to the police station, where she was made to attend a 9-hour “working session” during which police interrogated her about her involvement in human rights work.
Separately, on 19 March, political activist and citizen journalist Le Van Dung was arrested by police while in a coffee shop near his house in Ha Noi. He was brought to a police station at 2pm and detained there until 5pm the same day. During this brief period of detention, police interrogated him regarding his social commentary on Facebook.
On 29 March, the Department of Information and Media of Ha Noi gave a Facebook user a financial fine of 7.5 million VND (approximately 325 USD), for allegedly posting “untruthful information about the [National Assembly] election” on Zalo, a local social media platform.
These actions by the Vietnamese authorities constitute incidences of intimidation and harassment of individuals in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of their human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. These actions contribute to the creation of a climate of fear in which individuals are deterred from freely exercising their rights.
“The Vietnamese government’s campaign of intimidation and harassment of election candidates and independent voices must end. Moreover, Viet Nam’s candidacy to the UN Human Rights Council must lead to greater scrutiny of these violations at the international level,” said Emerlynne Gil.
Article 4 of the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam states that the CPV is “the leading force of the State and Society”. This provision has long been relied upon to justify an effective ban on any political opposition.
In practice, those who express dissent or criticism of the authorities are routinely met with repression in Viet Nam. Amnesty International’s December 2020 report, ‘Let Us Breathe! Censorship and Criminalization of Online Expression in Viet Nam’ revealed how this repression often occurs in the online sphere and in retaliation for social media activity.
Viet Nam announced it will be seeking a seat at the UN Human Rights Council in February 2021. As per the Council’s founding document, General Assembly resolution 60/251, members are elected by UN member states at the General Assembly and “when electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.”