Human rights organizations on Monday welcomed the early release of several prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, but say that the act serves to highlight the situation of scores of others who remain jailed for peacefully expressing their opinions. The release of the dissidents followed heavy international pressure on Vietnam’s government by foreign governments and rights groups.
Nguyen Tien Trung, Vi Duc Hoi and Cu Huy Ha Vu have all been released over the past week. “We are delighted that these men are out of prison but they should never have been locked-up in the first place. The releases are a step in the right direction for freedom of expression and we hope that they reflect a shift in Vietnam’s commitment to respecting human rights,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director.
“While the release of these netizens from prison is good news, only their full freedom would be satisfactory,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index. “Above all, we call on the authorities to release the 31 netizens who remain in prison in violation of their fundamental rights,’’ he added.
Accroding to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in Paris, Vietnam holds the highest number of political prisoner in Southeast Asia. FIDH President Karim Lahidji said “That is deplorable for a country that is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council.”
Nguyen Tien Trung
The most recent release came over the weekend, when Nguyen Tien Trung, aged 30, was freed after more than four years in prison. The IT engineer, blogger and pro-democracy activist had been found guilty in 2010 of attempting to “overthrow the people’s administration.”
The charges were brought after Nguyen Tien Trung and some friends set up an activist group while studying abroad in France. The group, called “The Assembly of Vietnamese Youth for Democracy”, was founded to encourage young Vietnamese people in the country and abroad to call for political reform and democracy.
At his trial the judges deliberated for only 15 minutes before returning with the final decision. It then took 45 minutes for the judges to read the judgment, strongly suggesting that it had been prepared in advance of the hearing. He was sentenced to seven years in prison followed by three years under house arrest.
Nguyen Tien Trung was not due for release until January 2017 and his release on Saturday came as a surprise to campaigners and his family. His co-defendant Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who Amnesty International also considers a prisoner of conscience, is still serving a 16-year sentence.
Vi Duc Hoi
Vi Duc Hoi, 56, was released on April 11th, nearly a year-and-a-half earlier than expected. Vi Duc Hoi is a writer and former member of Viet Nam’s ruling Communist Party. He was expelled from the party in 2007 for calling for democratic reform and then arrested in 2010 and jailed for eight years for using the internet to promote democracy. This sentence was reduced to five years on appeal.
Cu Huy Ha Vu
Last week, one of Vietnam’s most famous dissidents, human rights lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu, 56, was released on condition that he agree to go into exile and immediately flew to the United States. He was sentenced in 2011 to seven years in prison on a charge of anti-government propaganda after trying to bring a legal action against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in connection with a bauxite mining project.
Dinh Dang Dinh
However, jubilation over those released is marred by the tragic death of another prisoner of conscience, Dinh Dang Dinh, earlier this month. The 50-year old activist was unjustly jailed in 2011 for launching a petition against a bauxite mine project. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer while in prison; he did not receive treatment while in jail. He was released on March 21st but died on April 3rd.
Amnesty International has documented the cases of 75 individuals who have been imprisoned after being tried and convicted for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, and raised some of these cases in a recent visit to Vietnam. The cases, including the three men released, were included in the report Silenced Voices: Prisoners of Conscience in Vietnam. The document charts the harsh conditions faced by prisoners of conscience, many of whom suffer unfair trials, degrading treatment and ill-treatment in detention.
FIDH estimates that there are at least 212 political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam and many more are under house arrest. Those incarcerated include lawyers, bloggers, land rights activists, Buddhist monks, journalists, writers, singers, labor activists, pro-democracy campaigners, and members of ethnic and religious minorities, including Buddhist Khmer Krom and Christian Hmong and Montagnards. Many of Vietnam’s political prisoners are women. Many of the dissidents are serving lengthy prison terms in extremely poor detention conditions. As a result, their health is deteriorating and they are in need of urgent medical treatment and ongoing care.
Amnesty is calling on Vietnam’s government to free all those who remain imprisoned for speaking out. “The authorities should build on this positive step by immediately and unconditionally releasing all prisoners of conscience who still languish in prison simply for peacefully expressing their opinion,” said Rupert Abbott.
RSF added that more needs to be done regarding the human rights situation in Vietnam. “The government should take account of all the recommendations made when the UN Human Rights Council examined the situation of human rights in Vietnam in February, and should repeal all of the legislative articles that are systematically used to jail independent news providers,” Ismaïl said.
Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. It is also classified as an Enemy of the Internet because of its crackdown on bloggers and cyber-dissidents.