Friday, May 18, 2007

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.


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