International human rights organizations have urgently called on the United States government to press for the release of political prisoners arbitrarily detained in Vietnam, and the Assistant U.S. Secretary of State agrees that the human rights situation is getting worse.
Mr. Vo Van Ai, President of Paris-based Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam and the Vietnam Committee for Human Rights was speaking before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at the U.S. Congress about continuing abuse of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. Other speakers on the panel included Mr. Michael Posner, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor; Dr. Robert George, Commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Mrs. Mai Huong Ngo, wife of pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan who was recently arrested in Vietnam.
Mr. Ai described the terrible situation of religious and political prisoners and presented Congress with a list of 177 prisoners detained in Vietnam for the expression of their political opinions and religious beliefs. The numbers are staggering: “In a series of political trials since the beginning of last year alone, the government has sentenced at least 45 peaceful activists to a total of 231 years in prison and 103 years probationary detention,” he testified.
One such prisoner is Nguyen Quoc Quan, who was arrested on April 17th when he arrived to the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. He is accused of organizing ”terrorist” activities and currently held under investigation. Fleeing Vietnam in 1981, he made a life for himself in California and became a naturalized citizen. He is a mathematician who is also in the leadership of the pro-democracy organization Viet Tan.
His wife pleaded with the Commission to help: “I come here to appeal for your assistance in securing my husband’s release from arbitrary detention in Vietnam,” she said through tears. She explained that on April 17th 2012, her husband called her upon landing at the airport in Saigon and promised to call again after checking in at the hotel. “I waited. He never called back,” she testified.
She said that her husband has always advocated peaceful change and that the Vietnamese government ran a smear campaign after his arrest, in which he was referred to as a “terrorist” and accused of carrying materials on “terrorism training” and allegedly planning to incite acts of subversion. “By detaining my husband for his peaceful activities, Hanoi is not only severely violating his rights but it is also posing a potential threat to anyone supporting the philosophy and approach of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi,” she emphasized.
Mr. Posner said that the deteriorating rights situation in Vietnam was of ”great concern” to the United States and that respect for human rights “continues to deteriorate”.
Stressing that “human rights are meaningless if human rights defenders are not free. Democracy cannot develop if democratic voices are stifled”, Mr Ai. urged the U.S. to make the release of political and religious prisoners in Vietnam an urgent priority.
He also pointed out the discrepancy between rhetoric and reality: “Vietnam ratified the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1982, exactly thirty years ago, and its Constitution guarantees the respect of basic rights.” Yet, many are arbitrarily detained, deprived basic freedoms and jailed without due process in the legal system.
Mr. Ai also called on the U.S. to press Vietnam to revise vaguely-worded “national security” laws which are used to suppress peaceful dissent and re-designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations.
Among his other recommendations for improving the situation in Vietnam were advocating for the U.S. to adopt the 2012 Vietnam Human Rights Act which links U.S.-Vietnam trade relations with respect for human rights; and not support Vietnam’s stand for membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council for 2014-2016 which is scheduled for debate at the U.N .General Assembly in New York in September 2012.