Tuesday, May 29, 2007

National Assembly elections held

A 99% voter turnout was officially reported for the National Assembly elections, despite the fact that there were just 875 candidates for 493 seats, all with prior approval from the Vietnam Communist Party and its Fatherland Front. All but 150 candidates were party members, and of the 150 non-party members only 43 were elected, less than the 50 hoped for by election organizers. Of these 150 non-party candidates, 30 were self-nominated -- 238 self-nominated candidates had sought approval -- but only one self-nominated candidate was elected.

Regarding the reported turnout of 99%, or 56.4 million voters, an Associated Press report said that "many voters cast ballots without actually going to the polls, family members often vote for them." A Reuters report noted: "Voting is not compulsory but officials cajole people to cast ballots as districts compete to make sure all those eligible perform their civic duty. Many votes are cast for several members of a family by one person."

The new assembly will convene its first session in July.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, May 29.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bishop protests religious policy

In an article critical of the recent crackdown on dissent in Vietnam, the Catholic AsiaNews.it reports criticism of the government's religious policy from Msgr. Nguyen Van Hoa, bishop of Nha Trang. While distancing himself from recently imprisoned Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, whom he felt had become too involved in politics, the bishop affirmed the right of Fr. Ly and other Vietnamese to express their opinions regarding justice and truth in society. He also complained of the policy requiring government approval for the Vatican appointment of bishops: "many people know that the Holy See wanted to appoint me bishop of Hanoi but that this nomination was never accepted."

Source: AsiaNews.IT [Nguyen Hung], May 21

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Viet Tan - Vietnam Reform Party

We are reprinting the following article with the permission of its author, Carlyle Thayer.

Background Brief:
Viet Tan -
Vietnam Reform Party
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 10, 2007

Both the Vietnamese official media and Viet Tan are in agreement about the basic history of Viet Tan. Hoang Co Minh, a former Republic of Vietnam Navy Admiral, founded the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NUFLV) on April 30, 1980. He later founded the Vietnam Reform Party or Viet Tan (Viet Nam Canh Tan Cach Mang Dang) on September 10, 1982. The NUFLV and the Viet Tan aimed to overthrow the Vietnamese communist government.

Both Vietnamese authorities and members of the NUFLV agree that the NUFLV carried out acts of armed violence (or armed subversion) in Vietnam by infiltrating its members through Laos and Cambodia. A member of the Vietnam Reform Party has also indicated that during the period of clandestine activity (1982-94), members of Viet Tan living in Vietnam carried arms. Vietnam charges that Viet Tan created an armed force in late 2002 and also hired criminals to assassinate government officials; and later killed these hired assassins to hide their connections with the Viet Tan.

The Vietnam Reform Party went public on September 19, 2004 and at that time announced the dissolution of the NUFLV. The program of the Viet Tan and statements by its leaders stress that the Viet Tan will employ peaceful means to achieve democracy in Vietnam in cooperation with other like-minded groups.

[On October 28, 2003 ABC TV Foreign Correspondent program (Australia) aired an interview with a member of the Vietnam Canh Tan Cach Mang Dang and claimed this was the first public acknowledgement of the group in Vietnam.]

The Viet Tan has been publicly active lobbying members of parliament in Australia and Europe as well as congressmen in the United States. Viet Tan has staged peaceful rallies in a number of western capital cities including Washington, D.C.

Details of Viet Tan activities in Vietnam released by the official Vietnamese media in March-April 2007 do not establish that the Viet Tan has been engaged in violent activities. Rather the Viet Tan is charged with setting up law firms, businesses, and micro-credit programs to generate funds to finance Viet Tan's activities in Vietnam. Viet Tan is also charged with calling for a peaceful boycott of Vietnamese commodities and air services.

The official Vietnamese media has gone into hyper-drive in its propaganda campaign to charge that Viet Tan is a terrorist organisation. Since September 2004, as far as I can determine, no members of Viet Tan have been arrested or brought before a court in Vietnam on charges of terrorism or armed subversion. It is also unclear when Vietnamese authorities designated Viet Tan as a terrorist organisation.

The raft of anti-Viet Tan newspaper articles that appeared in the Vietnamese press and media in late March and early April 2007 charging that Viet Tan is a terrorist organisation are based on activities carried out by Viet Tan and the NUFLV prior to September 2004. The historical record indicates that armed subversion directed against the Vietnamese government by the NUFLV-Viet Tan was largely a product of the 1980s and came to an end with the death of Hoang Co Minh.

Vietnam experienced a number of acts of political violence throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Its security forces have also uncovered groups of anti-communist activists allegedly plotting to carry out acts of political violence during the same time period. While there may be personal connections or associations between Viet Tan and the individuals and organisations involved, existing evidence does not provide any substantiation that Viet Tan directed these acts of violence or plots.

Since 9/11 Vietnam has begun to employ the term terrorist in its propaganda. Initially the U.S. Government was put in a difficult position because Vietnam charged that Vietnamese-Americans in the United States were plotting and carrying out 'terrorist acts' against the Vietnamese Government. The Free Vietnam Movement/Government of Free Vietnam has come under scrutiny as a result and it would appear that the FBI and perhaps other agencies are taking steps to curtail and prevent such activity from taking place.

Vietnamese security officials have deliberately conflated all acts of political protest against the Vietnamese state, including peaceful protest and political violence, and labelled it terrorism.

Viet Tan was active in the U.S. in the final quarter of 2006 in lobbying the Bush Administration to raise human rights issues at the APEC Summit in November. A member of Viet Tan addressed the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Viet Tan also lobbied international donors in November 2006 to link transparency and accountability with their aid programs in Vietnam. In March 2007, Viet Tan organised international rallies to protest the current wave of political repression in Vietnam.

The Viet Tan is not included on the UN list of terrorist organisations.

The Viet Tan maintain a website in multiple languages: http://www.viettan.org

Vietnam's dissident lawyers

Vietnam's dissident lawyers
by Bill Hayton

Note: The following article by Bill Hayton is the English version of a piece he wrote for the BBC Vietnamese Service. We are reprinting it here with his permission.

On Friday (11.5.2007) two Vietnamese human rights lawyers will go on trial charged with spreading anti-state propaganda and face up to twenty years in jail. Bill Hayton, who was the BBC's reporter in Vietnam until the government refused to renew his visa in March this year, has met them both.

There are very few lawyers prepared to stand up for human rights in Vietnam and after (Friday) there will probably be two fewer. Until March Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, were two of the most outspoken
critics of the Vietnamese government inside the country. Now they've been silenced.

Their paths to the courtroom took quite different routes. The disillusion of Dai, 38, with Vietnam's Communist Party rulers began with the demise of communism in Europe. He was working in a factory in East Germany when the system collapsed in 1989. He saw parallels with the situation back home so when his factory went bankrupt the following year he returned to Vietnam and studied at Hanoi Law University with the intention of, "doing something for my country".

On graduation in 1995 he worked as a legal advisor to the Hanoi Law Company but in 1997 he and a friend became the first independent candidates to stand for election to Vietnam's National Assembly. The Communist Party had just allowed independents to run, however the selection process made (and still makes) it impossible for dissidents to be successful.

Then and now (Vietnam votes for a new National Assembly on 20 May) candidates have to be approved by their local neighbourhood and their workplace before they can actually run for election. Since both structures are always controlled by the Party, only Party-approved candidates will get through. Dai didn't.

At the end of 1999 Dai represented a woman, Nguyen Thi Thuy, who had been imprisoned for holding unauthorised Christian religious services in her house. Her appeal failed but shortly afterwards Dai says, "I felt God calling" and he joined the legally-registered Hanoi Evangelical

In April 2004 he was one of twelve lawyers who tried set up what Dai describes as, "a lawyers group for justice". But the Hanoi Bar Association told them to disband the organisation or it would revoke their licenses. The eleven other lawyers dropped out, leaving only Dai. "I think it was my Christian belief" he says.

He further irritated the authorities at the end of that year by defended six members of the then illegal Mennonite Church accused of "resisting persons doing official duty". And then, in April 2005 he began to defend political dissidents too.

From then on Dai was one of the main sources of information about what was happening to the dissident movement inside Vietnam. He regularly publicised cases of alleged human rights abuse by the authorities.

Many people wondered why he was able to get away with his activities for so long, why he wasn't detained like so many of the people he was defending. Some in the international community suggested that he might even have been an agent of the security services. Others suggested that the authorities found it useful to have a public figure like Dai to help them keep an eye on the dissident movement. The police might also have felt that the information he distributed was a reminder to potential dissidents of what would happen to them if they became politically active.

In the past year the dissident movement, although still tiny, has become more united and assertive. In particular the supporters of two manifestos for political change, collectively known as 'Bloc 8406' after the date (8 April 2006) on which they were publicised, have been prepared to make use of what, until recently, had seemed like a relaxing of political control in Vietnam.

One person who was attracted by the message of Bloc 8406 was another lawyer, Le Thi Cong Nhan. She is ten years younger than Dai and she became a dissident at a much earlier age - seven. "I was keeping my parents' position in a queue to receive food from a state shop in 1986 and I just thought, 'Why do I have to do this'" she told me last autumn.

Cong Nhan's, ironically, has a very communist name. It means 'worker' - her grandfather changed it when she was one month old hoping to curry favour with the authorities. It didn't do much good. Her parents were teachers and she says their low pay meant there was rarely enough food in the house.

She was already a lawyer when, in August 2006, "After a long period of careful thought" she became a supporter of the Bloc. Two weeks later she joined the newly announced - and illegal - 'Vietnam Progression Party' which calls for multi-party democracy.

Almost immediately she was visited by officers from A42, the political department of the Ministry of Public Security. She was taken to the police station, told that she was guilty of plotting to bring down the state and questioned for three days. After she refused to attend any more question sessions the police continued to bombard her with calls and text messages threatening her with arrest.

But then suddenly, the tactics changed, "They sent me flowers, invitations to dinner and the cinema, even a new mobile phone". The emails now called her brave and kind but one officer told her that the police were listening to all her phone calls.

When I met her she seemed to have no idea of the trouble that she was about to get into. She didn't want me to take her photograph - not because she was afraid of the publicity but simply because she was shy. Later she emailed me a copy of her ID photo - a stiff and formal pose for a lively and determined woman.

But then things got nasty. In October Cong Nhan was due to attend a conference in Warsaw to launch an independent trade union for Vietnam. The parallels with the Solidarity movement in Poland were quite deliberate. She got as far as the foot of the steps to the plane before she was stopped and told she couldn't travel. The next day, as she rode on her motorbike to change her ticket she was pushed and jostled and nearly fell off. She believes her attacker was from A42. She never got to Warsaw. She was fired by her law firm and then hired by Dai's firm Thien An. She is reported to have also joined the Evangelical Church.

In retrospect, that small flowering of dissent inside Vietnam during 2006 seems to have been the result of a deliberate 'hands off' policy. In the run-up to the Asia-Pacific summit in Hanoi in November - which was attended by President Bush among others - and during Vietnam's negotiations to join the World Trade Organisation the dissidents had a much easier time.

But in early 2007, once Vietnam's WTO membership had been safely approved, the authorities began what Human Rights Watch has described as, "one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years". The trigger in the cases of Dai and Cong Nhan was their efforts to organise human rights training for university students in Hanoi.

Police broke up the second such training event in February and arrested the two lawyers. They were questioned and released. A month later they were charged with spreading anti-state propaganda and committed for trial. The Hanoi Bar Association then revoked their lawyer's licenses and asked the Justice Ministry to close down the Thien An law firm.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tran Quoc Hien sentenced to five years

Another dissident has been has been brought to trial. This time it is Tran Quoc Hien, 42, an attorney and a union rights activist who was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison after a four hour trial in Ho Chi Minh City. He is the sixth pro-democracy activist to be tried in less than a week. His sentence is three years for "conducting propaganda against the state" plus two years for "disrupting security", to be followed by up to two years house arrest. Official press reports says Hien pleaded guilty, showed remorse, and pledged to leave the dissident organizations to which he belonged. He had been arrested in Jan. 2007.

Among his activities that led to his arrest were affiliation with dissident groups such as Bloc 8406 and the United Workers-Farmers Organization and attempting to organize anti-government demonstrations during President George Bush's visit to Ho Chi City last fall.

Human rights organizations and western governments have roundly denounced these trials, stating the prisoners are guilty of nothing more than exercising their right of free speech. Vietnam officials, on the other hand, claim that the trials have been fair and that free speech exists in the country, but that these individuals abused this right by slandering the state. My view is with the human rights organizations.

Sources: DPA/Bangkok Post May 14; AP May 15; Reporters Without Borders May 15; VNA May 15, 16; AFP May 15, 16.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan sentenced

Most here have probably read of the political trials in recent days. On Friday, lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan were brought before a Hanoi court and sentenced to five years and four years imprisonment, respectively; to be followed by four years probation for Dai and three years probation for Nhan. They were charged under Article 88 of Vietnam's Criminal Code, which prohibits the dissemination of anti-government "propaganda". More specifically, Dai was accused of using his law office "to draft, archive, and circulate documents biased against the Vietnamese state;" and of conducting courses in his office through which he "spread libellous and distorted news against the State and through which he recruited members for illegal organisations established by anti-Government elements, including groups so-called 21st Century Democracy Party, Viet Nam Progress Party and Bloc 8406." The judge at his trial said Dai and Nhan had "seriously violated Vietnam's constitution and laws by denigrating the Communist Party's role" and "misrepresented the situation of democracy and human rights in Vietnam."

The official press reports say Dai and Nhan were represented by lawyers, but that the lawyers offered no convincing evidence on their behalf. Letters to the government signed by Dai's wife and Nhan's mother preceding the trial urged the postponement of the trial so the lawyers could have time to prepare a case; and also pointed out numerous violations of Vietnam's Criminal Procedure Code in their arrest, imprisonment and treatment while waiting for trial.

Their trial was preceded by a barrage of media denuciations against them. Vietnam News Agency claims their verdict met widespread public approval in Vietnam; it cited two lawyers with the Hanoi Bar Association, a war veteran, and a priest with the Catholic solidarity committee (of the Fatherland Front) in a diocese of the Central Highlands who said all his parishioners supported the verdict.

This was the second trial in a week of dissidents accused of violating Article 88 of the Criminal Code. Tomorrow another such trial is to take place in Ho Chi Minh City, of Tran Quoc Hien, a spokesman for the banned United Workers and Farmers' Organization and member of Bloc 8406, on charges of defaming the state and disrupting security.

The unfair political show trials and heavy prison sentences have met widespread protest from human rights organizations and government officials. But apparently the protests fall on deaf ears as they have no economic or political leverage behind them.

For their part Vietnamese government officials claim that no one is imprisoned in Vietnam for their political views -- apparently it is only the expression of views that can lead to imprisonment, when those views are considered to be slanderous of the political leadership in Vietnam.

Sources: to be added later.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

New trials coming up

Vietnam News Agency announced yesterday two more trials for dissidents, all to be charged with spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a violation of Article 88 of Vietnam's Criminal Code.

The first trial, to take place on May 10, involves three defendants: Le
Nguyen Sang, 48; Huynh Nguyen Dao, 39; and Nguyen Bac Truyen, 39. They are accused of meeting in 2004 with Vietnamese American Do Thanh Cong (alias Do Cong Thanh), joining the People's Democratic Party, and distributing leaflets "that contained highly distorted information against Vietnam's State and Party." Thanh was expelled from the country in 2006.

The second trial will take place on May 15 for defendant Tran Quoc Hien, 42, who "will be prosecuted on charges of spreading propaganda against the State of Vietnam and disrupting security under the Penal Code of 1999, Articles 88 and 89." He is accused of having "joined reactionary organizations in 2006 through the Internet including the so-called 8406 bloc and acted under their instructions to call for pluralism and sabotage the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam."

Earlier reports mentioned also the upcoming trial on May 11 of Nguyen Van Dai, 38, head of the Thien An Lawyers’ Office, and Le Thi Cong Nhan, 28, who are accused of violating Section 1, Article 88 of the Criminal Code, by spreading anti-government propaganda and by possessing "many documents intended to undermine the State, distort guidelines, policies and laws of the State and Communist Party of Viet Nam and sabotage the upcoming National Assembly election."

Source: Vietnam News Agency May 3; Vietnam News Service April 27.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Human rights discussed in U.S.-Vietnam dialogue

A "frank discussion" on human rights and democracy took place in Washington, D.C. April 24, during the 12th human rights dialogue between the two countries, reports Hanoi's Vietnam News Agency. Pham Binh Minh, Assistant to the Vietnamese Foreign Minister and B. F. Lowenkron, US Assistant Secretary of State were the principal discussants.

VNA says Minh discussed Vietnam's achievements in various fields, urged improved bilateral ties, and "also raised his concerns regarding the US’s protection and promotion of rights and freedom, especially the torture and maltreatment of prisoners, and the racial discrimination and discrimination of minority groups and immigrants. "

VNA did not report Lowenkron's comments, but an earlier report said the U.S. is expected to raise the human rights issue during the visit of Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet to Washington later this year.

Sources: VNA April 27; Radio Australia April 11.

Farmers' union crushed: Amnesty International

Amnesty International issued today a worldwide appeal on behalf of five members of the United Workers Farmers Organization (UWFO) of Vietnam, who have been arrested since last November. None of them have yet been charged. The UWFO was formed last October, shortly before Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was to take place in Hanoi in November. The founding members were arrested just before the APEC conference began: Nguyen Tan Hoanh, Tran Thi Le Hang, Doan Huy Chuong and his father Doan Van Dien. In January, UWFO spokesman Tran Quoc Hien was also arrested.

The UWFO advocates for the right of Vietnamese to form and participate in trade and labor unions free of government interference; and has also called for justice of people whose land and property have been unlawfully confiscated. Forming independent unions is illegal in Vietnam.

Source: Amnesty International appeal, May 1.