Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2007Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and LaborMarch 11, 2008
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with a population of approximately 84 million, is an authoritarian state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). The CPV’s constitutionally mandated primacy and the continued occupancy of all key government positions by party members allows it to set national policy. However, the CPV continued to reduce its formal involvement in government operations and allowed the government to exercise discretion in implementing policy. There were no other legal political parties. The most recent National Assembly elections, held in May, were neither free nor fair, since all candidates were vetted by the CPV’s Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF), an umbrella group that monitored the country’s popular organizations. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.
The government’s human rights record remained unsatisfactory. Citizens could not change their government, and political opposition movements were prohibited. The government continued its crackdown on dissent, arresting a number of political activists and disrupting nascent opposition organizations, causing several political dissidents to flee the country. Police sometimes abused suspects during arrest, detention, and interrogation. Prison conditions were often severe. Individuals were arbitrarily detained for political activities and were denied the right to fair and expeditious trials. The government reinforced its controls over the press and the Internet and continued to limit citizens’ privacy rights and freedom of speech, assembly, movement, and association. Overall respect for religious freedom improved during the year, but the government persisted in placing restrictions on the political activities of religious groups. The government maintained its prohibition of independent human rights organizations. Violence and discrimination against women remained a problem. Trafficking in women and children for purposes of prostitution continued. Some ethnic minority groups suffered societal discrimination. The government limited workers’ rights, especially to organize independently, and arrested or harassed several labor activists.
Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
There were no substantiated reports that the government or its agents committed any politically motivated killings; however, there were unconfirmed reports of extrajudicial killings. Some political and religious activists claimed that government authorities used plainclothes “contract thugs” and “citizen brigades” to beat and sometimes kill “undesirables”; however, it was impossible to confirm these reports.
There were no developments in the July 2006 case of Y Ngo Adrong, an ethnic Jarai who reportedly hanged himself in his prison cell, although bruises on his torso strongly suggested that he died from a beating.
Two politically active Vietnamese citizens, Tim Sakhorn and Le Tri Tue, disappeared in Cambodia in May. Tim Sakhorn reappeared months later in Vietnamese custody in An Giang Province, where he was later tried and sentenced to one year in prison in November. Le Tri Tue was still missing at year’s end, amid rumors that Vietnamese government security agents had killed him.
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits physical abuse; however, police sometimes physically mistreated suspects while they were under arrest or in police custody.
Incidents of local police harassment and beatings were reported in the provinces of Dien Bien, Quang Ninh, Hai Phong, Lang Son, Thanh Hoa, and Tra Vinh, often involving disruption of “illegal” meetings at Protestant house churches or restrictions on religious holiday celebrations. Officials involved in harassment and beating incidents in Thanh Hoa were fined and reprimanded. In Lang Son in November, plainclothes security agents allegedly beat democracy activist Nguyen Phuong Anh while he was visiting another activist; authorities claimed that he was drunk. More than one Protestant congregation in Dien Bien reported incidents of police beatings and harassment.
There were allegations from activist groups that police harassed or beat ethnic minority returnees in the Central Highlands, although most reports could not be substantiated. Monitors found that most incidents involved land, money, or domestic disputes.
In April police prevented the wives of five political prisoners from meeting with a diplomat and a parliamentarian of a foreign country. Two of the women were intercepted and manhandled by plainclothes security agents. In a later incident, security officials intercepted a woman invited to meet with the same diplomat and temporarily detained her. At various times other political activists and family members of prisoners were physically prevented from meeting with foreign diplomatic officials. Tactics used by authorities included setting up barriers or guards outside their residences or calling them into the local police station for questioning.
On July 11, a political dissident and prominent labor activist was released from the mental hospital where she was involuntarily committed in November 2006. While there were no restrictions on her activities, she reportedly was ordered to undergo monthly “checkups,” and she remained concerned about surveillance and potential rearrest.
No action was taken against local authorities who beat two ethnic Dao Protestants in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum, and no compensation was provided to the victims.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions could be severe but generally did not threaten the lives of prisoners. Diplomatic observers reported Spartan but generally acceptable conditions. Overcrowding, insufficient diet, lack of clean drinking water, and poor sanitation nonetheless remained serious problems in many prisons. Prisoners had access to basic health care, with additional medical services available in hospitals at the district and provincial levels. In many cases, however, family members were prevented from transmitting medication to prisoners. Prisoners generally were required to work but received no wages. Prisoners were sometimes moved to solitary confinement, where they were deprived of reading and writing materials for periods of up to several months. Family members made credible claims that prisoners received better benefits by paying bribes to prison officials.
There were unsubstantiated reports of poor prison conditions at Xuan Loc Prison in Dong Nai Province. Allegations included cases of several deaths of prisoners, which could not be confirmed by the international community. Family members of human rights lawyer and Protestant activist Nguyen Van Dai and Catholic activist Father Nguyen Van Ly claimed that the two were denied access to a Bible, allegedly because prison officials feared they would convert other inmates to Christianity. In October Nguyen Van Dai was allowed to have a Bible. Another imprisoned activist and Christian, Le Thi Cong Nhan, reportedly had her Bible taken from her by prison authorities in Thanh Hoa Province.
The government generally did not permit the International Committee of the Red Cross or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to visit prisons. The government approved a request from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to visit a prisoner, but by year’s end no UNHCR representative had gone to the prison. In March a foreign diplomat was allowed to visit a prison in the north. In October foreign observers were allowed to visit political and religious activists at a prison outside Hanoi. Other requests by diplomatic observers to visit prisoners were pending.
Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the government continued to arrest and detain citizens for their political activities. This included the November arrests in Ho Chi Minh City of two Vietnamese citizens and three foreign citizens who were preparing to mail pamphlets calling for a democratic change of government through nonviolent resistance. The government accused the group of committing “terrorist acts.” By year’s end two of the foreign nationals had been released. Another foreigner, connected to the group and arrested at the same time at the border with Cambodia, remained in custody at year’s end. The government accused the foreign citizen of entering the country with false documentation but did not announce formal charges.
The criminal code allows the government to detain persons without charges indefinitely under vague “national security” provisions. During the year several individuals were arrested for violating Article 88 of the criminal code, which prohibits the “distribution of propaganda against the state.” Those charged with violating Article 88 were typically sentenced to terms of up to five years in prison.
Role of the Police and Security Apparatus
Internal security is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS); however, in some remote areas the military is the main government agency and provides public safety functions, including maintaining public order in the event of civil unrest. The MPS controls the police, a special national security investigative agency, and other internal security units. It also maintains a system of household registration and block wardens to monitor the population, including those suspected of engaging, or likely to engage, in unauthorized political activities; however, the system became less pervasive in its intrusion into most citizens’ daily lives. Nevertheless, credible reports suggested there were incidents of local police forces using “contract thugs” and “citizen brigades” to harass and beat political activists and others perceived as “undesirable” or a “threat” to public security.
Police organizations exist at the provincial, district, and local levels and are subject to the authority of the people’s committees at each level. The police were generally effective at maintaining political stability and public order, but police capacities, especially investigative, were generally very low. Police training and resources were inadequate. Corruption was a significant problem among the police force at all levels, and police officers sometimes acted with impunity. Internal police oversight structures existed but were subject to political influence.
Arrest and Detention
The criminal code outlines the process by which individuals are taken into custody and treated until they are brought before a court or other tribunal for judgment. The Supreme People’s Procuracy (the Public Prosecutor’s Office) issues arrest warrants, generally at the request of police; however, police may make an arrest without a warrant on the basis of a complaint filed by any person. The procuracy issues retroactive warrants in such cases. The procuracy must issue a decision to initiate a formal criminal investigation of a detainee within nine days; otherwise, police must release the suspect. In practice the nine-day regulation was often circumvented.
The investigative period may last from three months for less serious offenses (those punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment) to 16 months for exceptionally serious offenses (those punishable by more than 15 years’ imprisonment or capital punishment), or 20 months for national security cases. During the investigative period, detainees typically were not allowed access to a lawyer or family members, especially in national security cases. During this period some detainees were strongly compelled to admit guilt in support of the government’s case against them. Investigators sometimes used physical isolation, excessively lengthy interrogation sessions, and sleep deprivation to compel detainees to admit guilt.
The criminal code further permits the procuracy to request additional two-month periods of detention after an investigation to consider whether to prosecute a detainee or ask the police to investigate further. There was no functioning bail system or equivalent system of conditional release. Time spent in pretrial detention counts toward time served upon conviction and sentencing.
Although legal counsel is a constitutional right for all persons accused of crimes, a scarcity of trained lawyers and lack of defendant rights made prompt detainee access to an attorney rare. In general only persons formally charged with capital crimes were assigned lawyers.
By law detainees are permitted access to lawyers from the time of their detention, but the system often functioned in a way that denied detainees free and open access to legal counsel. Bureaucratic delays frequently limited initial detainee contacts with their attorneys. In national security cases, authorities can delay defense lawyers’ access to clients until after an investigation has ended and the suspect has been formally charged with a crime. Lawyers must be informed of and allowed to attend interrogations of their clients. They must also be given access to case files and be permitted to make copies of documents. Attorneys were sometimes able to exercise these privileges. However, in the case of an interrogation, a defendant first must request the presence of a lawyer, and it was not clear whether authorities always advised defendants of this privilege.
Police generally informed families of detainees’ whereabouts; however, family members were allowed to visit a detainee only with the permission of the investigator, and this permission was not automatically granted. Prior to a formal indictment, detainees also have the right to notify family members. However, a number of detainees suspected of national security violations were held incommunicado. At year’s end some persons arrested early in the year had not been seen by family members or a lawyer, nor had they been formally charged with crimes.
Courts may sentence persons to administrative detention of up to five years after completion of a sentence. In addition, police or mass organizations can propose that one of five “administrative measures” be imposed by people’s committee chairpersons at district and provincial levels without a trial. The measures include terms ranging from six to 24 months in either juvenile reformatories or adult detention centers and generally were applied to repeat offenders with a record of minor offenses, such as committing petty theft or “humiliating other persons.” Chairpersons may also impose terms of “administrative probation,” which generally was some form of restriction on movement and travel. In March the government repealed Decree 31, a provision on administrative probation often used to punish perceived political dissidents. However, authorities continued to sanction some individuals subject to Decree 31 after its repeal. The government also used other decrees, ordinances, and measures, such as Article 88, to detain activists for the peaceful expression of opposing political views.
Arbitrary detentions, particularly for political activists, remained a problem. A government crackdown on political dissent that started in late 2006 and continued through April resulted in the arrest and detention of approximately 30 activists. Although some were released, others either remained under investigation and in detention without being formally charged or were tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
On May 8, police forcibly entered the home of prominent Ho Chi Minh City democracy activist Tran Khue and removed personal computers and other material. Khue underwent interrogation and was eventually released. On November 26, Khue was prevented from traveling to Hanoi to visit terminally ill democracy activist Hoang Minh Chinh.
There were reports that government officials in the Central and Northwest Highlands temporarily detained ethnic minority individuals for communicating with the ethnic minority community abroad during the year.
Peaceful land rights protests in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi resulted in the temporary detention and security surveillance of several activists, although the government handled the dispersal of these protests without significant violence. Peaceful protests in December over Chinese actions in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands also resulted in the temporary detention of several activists for demonstrating without permission. One activist in Ho Chi Minh City claimed he was held for questioning for 30 hours before being released.
In July Thich Khong Thanh, a Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) monk, was temporarily detained in Hanoi for his reported involvement in land rights protests, then transferred back to Ho Chi Minh City and released. Others with him were temporarily detained in Hanoi. In November UBCV monk Thich Thien Minh was temporarily detained and questioned in Ho Chi Minh City, also due to his involvement in land rights protests. He remained under police surveillance.
Senior UBCV leaders remained under “pagoda arrest,” although the government denied that such orders existed, but they were allowed some movement within the country. Other religious and political activists were subject to varying degrees of informal detention in their residences.
The government did not grant a Tet amnesty, and it delayed the September National Day amnesty until October, due to the May elections and a change in government portfolios. Nevertheless, provincial councils throughout the country conducted a National Day amnesty of prisoners under their jurisdiction. In late October, as part of a delayed National Day Amnesty, the government amnestied several thousand persons, including 11 under national security charges. The 11 national security releases included three of eight Cao Dai activists, originally arrested in 2004 for distributing petitions at an ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh, and Montagnard prisoners, arrested in the 2004 Central Highlands protests.
Several high-profile prisoners benefited from special release during the year, including political activists Nguyen Vu Binh, Phan Van Ban, and Le Quoc Quan. Binh, a journalist and writer released in June, was detained in 2002 and sentenced to seven years in prison in 2003 after writing articles calling for greater political freedoms. Ban, imprisoned in 1985 after joining an organization that called for political change, was released and deported on May 9. Le Quoc Quan, an attorney and democracy activist, was released on June 16 but remained under strict surveillance.
Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for the independence of judges and lay assessors; however, in practice the CPV controlled the courts at all levels by retaining effective executive power to appoint judges and often to determine verdicts. Most, if not all, judges were members of the CPV and were chosen at least in part for their political reliability. As in past years, the judicial system was strongly distorted by political influence, endemic corruption, and inefficiency. CPV influence was particularly notable in high-profile cases and others in which a person was charged with challenging or harming the CPV or the state.
The judiciary consists of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC); provincial and district people’s courts; military tribunals; administrative, economic, and labor courts; and other tribunals established by law. Each district has a people’s court, which serves as the court of first instance for most domestic, civil, and criminal cases. Each province also has a people’s court, which serves as the appellate forum for district court cases as well as court of first instance for other cases. The SPC, which reports to the National Assembly, is the highest court of appeal and review. Administrative courts adjudicate complaints by citizens about official abuse and corruption. There are also special committees to help resolve local disputes.
There was a shortage of trained lawyers and judges, and there was no independent bar association. Low judicial salaries hindered efforts to develop a trained judiciary. The few judges who had formal legal training often had studied abroad only in countries with communist legal traditions.
Government training programs to address the problem of inadequately trained judges and other court officials were underway. Foreign governments and the UN Development Program provided assistance; however, the lack of openness in the criminal judicial process and the continuing lack of independence of the judiciary hampered progress.
Courts of first instance at district and provincial levels include judges and lay assessors, but provincial appeals courts and the SPC are composed of judges only. People’s councils appoint lay assessors from a pool of candidates suggested by the VFF. Lay assessors are required to have “high moral standards,” but legal training is not required.
Military tribunals, although funded by the Ministry of Defense, operate under the same rules as other courts. The Defense Ministry is represented on the judicial selection panels, and the head of the military tribunal system is the deputy head of the SPC. Military tribunal judges and assessors are military personnel, chosen jointly by the SPC and the ministry but supervised by the SPC. The law gives military courts jurisdiction over all criminal cases involving military entities, including military-owned enterprises. The military has the option of using the administrative, economic, or labor courts for civil cases.
The constitution provides that citizens are innocent until proven guilty; however, many lawyers complained that judges generally presumed guilt. Trials generally were open to the public, but in sensitive cases judges closed trials or strictly limited attendance. Juries are not used; judges or panels of judges hear prosecution and defense arguments and make final adjudications. Defendants have the right to be present and have a lawyer at trial, although not necessarily the lawyer of their choice, and this right was generally upheld in practice. Defendants unable to afford a lawyer were generally provided one only in cases with possible sentences of life imprisonment or capital punishment. The defendant or the defense lawyer has the right to cross-examine witnesses; however, there were cases in which neither defendants nor their lawyers were allowed to have access to government-held evidence in advance of the trial, to cross-examine witnesses, or to challenge statements. Defense lawyers commonly had little time before trials to examine evidence against their clients. Convicted persons have the right to appeal. District and provincial courts did not publish their proceedings. The SPC has published the proceedings of all the cases it reviewed since 2003.
There continued to be credible reports that defense lawyers were pressured not to take as clients any religious or democracy activists facing trial.
The public prosecutor brings charges against an accused person and serves as prosecutor during trials. According to the criminal procedures code, the change in courtroom procedures was to continue from an “investigative” system, in which the judge leads the questioning, to an “adversarial” system, in which prosecutors and defense lawyers advocate for their respective sides. The change was intended to provide more protections for defendants and prevent judges from coercing defendants into confessing guilt; however, implementation differed from one province to another.
On March 30, government officials allowed foreign diplomats to observe by closed-circuit television the trial of Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly in Hue. The government later allowed foreign diplomats to view via closed-circuit television the May 11 trial of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan in Hanoi as well as their SPC appeal trial on November 27.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reliable estimates of the number of political prisoners. The government claimed it held no political prisoners, only lawbreakers. The government held at least 30 political detainees at year’s end, although some international observers claimed the numbers ranged into the hundreds.
In January police briefly detained human rights lawyer and labor activist Le Thi Cong Nhan for questioning. Nhan was later arrested, tried, and on May 11 sentenced to four years in prison and three years’ probation for violating Article 88. In November the SPC reduced the prison portion of her sentence to three years on appeal.
In February authorities temporarily detained and questioned a number of politically active church leaders, including Roman Catholic priests Chan Tin and Phan Van Loi. Other democracy activists who were detained and eventually released included Nguyen Phong, Nguyen Binh Thanh, Hoang Thi Anh Dao, Bach Ngoc Duong, Nguyen Phuong Anh, and Pham Van Coi. Some subsequently fled to Cambodia and sought protection from the UNHCR, while Nguyen Phong and Nguyen Binh Thanh were later rearrested, tried, and on March 30 sentenced to prison terms of six and five years, respectively.
On February 18, Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly, amnestied in 2005, was rearrested. On March 30, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison under Article 88 for “conducting propaganda against the state.”
On March 6, human rights attorney Nguyen Van Dai was arrested under Article 88; on May 11, he was sentenced to five years in prison and four years’ probation. In November the SPC on appeal reduced the prison portion of his sentence to four years.
On March 8, attorney and democracy activist Le Quoc Quan was arrested in March shortly after returning from a fellowship program in the United States. He was charged with violations of Article 79 of the penal code, which covers “crimes of infringing upon national security,” including “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” On June 16, while still under investigation, Quan was released as part of a special amnesty but was disbarred. At year’s end he remained under strict surveillance.
In April writer and journalist Tran Khai Thanh Thuy was detained for violation of Article 88. At year’s end she remained in detention without trial (see section 2.a.).
In May Tran Quoc Hien received a three-year prison term for “conducting propaganda against the state” and a two-year sentence for “disrupting security.”
On May 10, Le Nguyen Sang, Huynh Nguyen Dao, and Nguyen Bac Truyen, arrested in August 2006 and charged with “storage of antigovernment materials,” were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for violating Article 88. On August 17, at the appeals trial for Le Nguyen Sang, the court reduced Sang’s sentence from five to four years in prison, Truyen’s from four years to three years and six months, and Dao’s from three years to two years and six months; their two-year probation terms remained unchanged. The court continued to find Sang, Truyen, and Dao guilty of “propagandizing against the state.”
On May 16, prodemocracy activist Nguyen Ba Dang was arrested for “spreading propaganda against the state”; at year’s end authorities had not released any information regarding his case. Dang was being detained in Kinh Chi Camp in Hai Duong City.
At year’s end Truong Quoc Huy remained in detention without formal charges after his arrest in August 2006 on charges related to political activism, including “attempting to undermine national unity.” A trial scheduled for April 13 was postponed for unspecified reasons, and a trial rescheduled for December 18 was indefinitely postponed.
Pham Ba Hai, Vu Hoang Hai, Nguyen Ngoc Quan, and an unknown number of others, arrested in September 2006 for activities involving the “propagandizing against the people’s government,” remained in detention without official notification of charges. A trial set for December 27 was indefinitely postponed.
Several political dissidents affiliated with outlawed political organizations, including Bloc 8406, the People’s Democratic Party, People’s Action Party, Free Vietnam Organization, Democratic Party of Vietnam, United Workers-Farmers Organization, and others, remained in prison in various locations.
At year’s end five of eight Cao Dai Church members, sentenced in 2005 to between three and 13 years in prison, remained incarcerated. Three were amnestied in October. Ethnic minority prisoners from the Central Highlands, associated with the 2004 Central Highlands protests, also remained in prison. Some NGOs claimed there were several hundred such prisoners. Some were released from detention in the October amnesty.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
There is no clear or effective mechanism for pursuing a civil action to redress or remedy abuses by authorities. Civil suits are heard by “administrative” courts, civil courts, and criminal courts, all of which follow the same procedures as in criminal cases and are adjudicated by members of the same body of judges and lay assessors. All three levels were subject to the same problems of corruption, lack of independence, and inexperience.
Officials reported that according to law, a citizen seeking to press a complaint regarding a human rights violation by a civil servant is required first to petition the officer accused of committing the violation for permission to refer the complaint to the administrative courts. If a petition is refused, the citizen may refer it to the officer’s superior. If the officer or his superior agrees to allow the complaint to be heard, the matter is taken up by the administrative courts. If the administrative courts agree that the case should be pursued, it is referred either to the civil courts for suits involving physical injury seeking redress of less than 20 percent of health care costs resulting from the alleged abuse, or to the criminal courts for redress of more than 20 percent of such costs. In practice this elaborate system of referral and permission ensured that citizens had little effective recourse to civil or criminal judicial procedures to remedy human rights abuses, and few legal experts had experience with the system.
Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions; however, the government did not respect these prohibitions in practice. Household registration and block warden systems existed for the surveillance of all citizens. Authorities focused on persons suspected of being involved in unauthorized political or religious activities.
Forced entry into homes is not permitted without orders from the public prosecutor; however, security forces seldom followed these procedures but instead asked permission to enter homes, with an implied threat of repercussions for failure to cooperate. Some individuals refused to cooperate with such “requests.” In urban areas police generally left when faced with noncompliance.
Government authorities opened and censored targeted persons’ mail, confiscated packages and letters, and monitored telephone conversations, e-mail, and facsimile transmissions. The government cut the telephone lines and interrupted the cellular telephone and Internet service of a number of political activists and their family members.
The government did not have an official policy of forced resettlement. Nevertheless, the government resettled some citizens to make way for infrastructure projects, many in ethnic minority communities, and there were widespread reports that compensation was either not fair or not paid in a timely manner.
In June in Ho Chi Minh City, disgruntled groups from the Mekong Delta and the Ho Chi Minh City region conducted peaceful protests over disputes related to land expropriation and land compensation by the state. On July 18, some protesters were forcibly placed into police trucks when they refused to end the three-week rally, and many suffered minor injuries. Eyewitnesses dismissed as inaccurate reports that police violence was used to break up the Ho Chi Minh City protests. Police detained protest organizers but eventually released them, reportedly unharmed. Several activists later complained of police surveillance and harassment. Other reported organizers were publicly denounced in the media and had their home addresses published, a common practice by security officials. A smaller July land rights protest in Hanoi was peacefully dispersed by security officials, and those detained were released shortly afterwards.
Following the protests in June and July, the government publicized measures to address land rights protesters’ concerns, including the establishment of 14 interagency inspection teams to look into unresolved land claims disputes. However, at year’s end there were no reports that any such claims had been resolved.
Some members of ethnic minorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands continued to complain that they had not received proper compensation for past seizures of their land, which was given to government-owned coffee and rubber plantations.
Some resettled individuals reportedly returned to their ancestral villages in Son La and Dien Bien provinces after being forced to move during the year. In the case of a dam project in Son La, the government attempted to improve compensation and resettlement activities, although not every family was satisfied.
Membership in the CPV remained a prerequisite to career advancement for all government and government-linked organizations and businesses. However, economic diversification made membership in the CPV and CPV-controlled mass organizations less essential to financial and social advancement.
The government continued to implement a family planning policy that urged families to have no more than two children, but the policy emphasized exhortation and education rather than coercion. The government can deny promotions and salary increases to public sector employees with more than two children, and some cases of denied promotion or financial penalties were reported, although the policy did not appear to be enforced in a consistent manner.
Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the government continued to restrict these freedoms, particularly with respect to speech that criticized individual government leaders, promoted pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters such as human rights, religious freedom, or the border agreement with China. The line between what constituted private speech and public speech continued to be arbitrary.
Both the constitution and the criminal code include broad national security and antidefamation provisions that the government used to restrict freedom of speech and of the press. The criminal code defines the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people,” and “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” as serious offenses against national security. The criminal code also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state and social organizations.”
The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass organizations controlled all print, broadcast, and electronic media, although some media organizations increasingly pushed the limits of censorship. The government exercised oversight through the Ministry of Culture and Information, reorganized during the year to become the Ministry of Information and Communication, and supplemented its control through pervasive party guidance and national security legislation sufficiently broad to ensure effective self-censorship by the domestic media.
On January 9, politburo member Truong Tan Sang gave a speech calling on the CPV to strengthen “management of the press” by “amending legal documents on press activities and improving media workers’ political stances, skills, and ethics.” After detailing the positive role the media played in socioeconomic development, Sang stated that the CPV “must enhance its leadership role” in appointing and recruiting media workers. In addition, the party’s Central Committee resolved at its sporadic but typically semiannual plenary meetings for state media to rededicate itself to carrying out party lines and policies.
In August the country’s first national press award honors went to the official army newspaper for exposing the threat of “reactionary” and “hostile influences” working to undermine the country.
Editors from some periodicals were reportedly threatened with sanctions for their publication of criticisms of the government, including revelations of alleged official corruption. Late in the year, two deputy chief editors at the Ho Chi Minh City-based Tuoi Tre daily newspaper were removed for their publication of articles in 2006 alleging that the state bank governor awarded his son a contract to print new polymer banknotes.
Late in the year, Chinese statements asserting authority over disputed islands in the South China Sea created enormous public and media resentment. To control the popular reaction, the government reportedly ordered media silence on the issue. VietnamNet, a major online news outlet, published an editorial in December, and the Ministry of Information and Communication fined the news organization $2,000 (32 million VND). The editor-in-chief was notified that he would be removed from his position. At year’s end he remained in his post, but a coeditor was named by the ministry to oversee the outlet’s news production.
The law requires journalists to pay monetary damages to individuals or organizations harmed as a result of their reporting, even if the reports are true. Independent observers noted that the law severely limited investigative reporting. Several media outlets continued to test the limits of government press restrictions by publishing articles that criticized actions by CPV and other government officials. There were press reports on topics that generally were considered sensitive, such as the prosecution on corruption charges of high-ranking CPV and government officials, as well as occasional criticism of officials and official associations. Nonetheless, the freedom to criticize the CPV and its senior leadership remained restricted.
In June Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed a decree prohibiting all government and CPV employees except ministers, provincial governors, or appointed spokespersons from speaking to the media. The decree codifies several procedures that journalists must follow before being granted an interview, but it does not specify punishments for officials who provide information without permission. International and domestic journalists suggested that the decree represents the formalization of what was a previously implied policy.
Some persons who expressed alternative opinions on religious or political issues were not allowed to travel abroad or were denied a passport.
Foreign journalists must be approved by the Foreign Ministry’s press center and must be based in Hanoi, with the exception of one correspondent reporting solely on economic issues who lived and maintained an office in Ho Chi Minh City while officially accredited to Hanoi. Foreign journalists are required to renew their visas every three to six months, although the process is routine and there were no reports of any visa renewals being refused. The number of foreign media employees allowed was limited, and local employees who worked for foreign media also were required to be registered with the Foreign Ministry.
It became somewhat easier for foreign media outlets to hire local reporters and photographers and receive approval for their accreditation, although the process continued to be cumbersome. The Foreign Ministry’s press center nominally monitored journalists’ activities and approved requests for interviews, photographs, filming, or travel, submitted at least five days in advance, on a case-by-case basis. By law foreign journalists are required to address all questions to government agencies through the Foreign Ministry, although in practice this procedure was often ignored. Foreign journalists noted that they generally did not notify the government about their travel outside of Hanoi unless it involved a story that the government would consider sensitive or they were traveling to an area considered sensitive, such as the Central Highlands.
The government restricted the publication and distribution of religious texts.
Foreign-language editions of some banned books were sold openly by street peddlers and in shops oriented to tourists. Foreign-language periodicals were widely available in cities, although there was occasional censorship of articles by the government. The government’s censorship office threatened to ban the publication of A Perfect Spy, a novel about the Viet Cong double agent Pham Xuan An; however, in August a government-owned, party-controlled firm published the book.
The law limits access to satellite television to top officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press. In practice, however, persons throughout the country were able to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable. Cable television, including foreign-origin channels, was widely available to subscribers living in urban areas. Unlike in 2006, the government did not block subscribers from receiving certain channels.
The government allows access to the Internet through a limited number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), all of which were state-owned joint stock companies. Internet usage grew rapidly during the year, with an estimated 18 million Internet users out of a population of 84 million by year’s end. Blogging increased rapidly, primarily as a youth phenomenon, but older adults and professionals also set up their own blogs. In addition, a number of prominent print and online news journalists set up their own blogs. In several cases their blogs were considered far more controversial that their mainstream writing. In a few cases, the government fined or punished these individuals for the content of their blogs.
The government forbids direct access to the Internet through foreign ISPs, requires domestic ISPs to store information transmitted on the Internet for at least 15 days, and also requires ISPs to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor Internet activities.
The government requires Internet agents, such as cybercafes, to register the personal information of their customers and store records of Internet sites visited by customers. However, in practice many cybercafe owners did not maintain these records. Similarly, it was not clear whether major ISPs complied with the many government regulations.
The government monitored e-mail, searched for sensitive key words, regulated Internet content, and blocked many Web sites with political or religious content that authorities deemed “offensive.” They claimed that censorship of the Internet was necessary to protect citizens from pornography and other “antisocial” or “bad elements.” They also claimed to try to limit Internet access by school-age users to keep them from gaming at the expense of their school work.
Article 88 is construed to prohibit individuals from downloading from the Internet and disseminating documentation that the government deems offensive.
Authorities continued to detain and imprison dissidents who used the Internet to publish ideas on human rights and political pluralism. For example, on April 21, writer and Internet journalist Tran Khai Thanh Thuy was arrested at her home in Hanoi for Article 88 violations. Thuy reportedly expressed her political views on a number of domestic Web sites. At year’s end she was being held at a prison in Hanoi, with no access to family or a lawyer. Hanoi-based human rights lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan were also arrested, jailed, and charged under Article 88. At their May trial, the government’s case largely revolved around downloading, authoring, and distributing prodemocracy documents on the Internet.
Other individuals were also arrested for “misuse” of the Internet, including participating in certain online forums and chat services and writing about democracy and human rights.
The government continued to use firewalls to block some Web sites that it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including Web sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups. The government appeared to have lifted most of its restrictions on access to the Voice of America Web site. Although Radio Free Asia (RFA) appeared to be available only intermittently, primarily in the north, local press occasionally wrote stories based on RFA broadcasts. Access to sites operated by overseas dissident groups continued to be restricted.
The Ministry of Information and Communication requires owners of domestic Web sites, including those operated by foreign entities, to register their sites with the government and submit their planned Web site content and scope to the government for approval; however, enforcement remained selective.
In a widely publicized case, Intellasia, an online news and investment publication, came under public attack from government-sponsored newspapers alleging the Intellasia Web site was “illegal for posting reactionary content.” Media articles reported that police had detected an “unlicensed” Web operation managed by an Australian citizen and that the Web site had “posted many distorted and reactionary articles about the country’s politics, human rights, and democracy.” Government investigators allegedly confirmed that Intellasia’s Web site management company, Tri Tue A Chau Ltd., violated Decree 56 concerning press operations. Intellasia also was under suspicion for publishing “critical political news” and operating a Web server abroad. In August authorities shut down access to the Web site inside the country. In September the Australian owner of the site fled the country, claiming that security officials had threatened his wife and employees with imprisonment and had used denial of service and cyberattack techniques to shut down the site. At year’s end Intellasia was operating from outside the country.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government asserts the right to restrict academic freedom, and foreign field researchers were sometimes questioned and monitored. However, the government continued to permit a more open flow of information, including in the university system, than in previous years. Local librarians increasingly were being trained in professional skills and international standards that supported wider international library and information exchanges and research. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country were allowed to discuss nonpolitical issues widely and freely in classes, but government observers regularly attended classes taught by both foreigners and citizens. Security officials occasionally questioned persons who attended programs on diplomatic premises or used diplomatic research facilities. Nevertheless, requests for materials from foreign research facilities increased. Academic publications usually reflected the views of the CPV and the government.
In March four writers, members of a former dissident intellectual circle from the 1950s and once banned for writing poems critical of government policy, received prestigious national awards for artistic achievement. Two of the awards were posthumous. This was widely seen as a cautious indication of a greater tolerance for free academic discourse.
The government generally exercised controlled over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities; however, it generally allowed artists broader latitude than in past years to choose the themes for their works.
Freedom of Assembly
The right of assembly is restricted by law, and the government restricted and monitored all forms of public protest or gathering. Persons wishing to gather in a group are required by law and regulation to apply for a permit, which local authorities can issue or deny arbitrarily. In practice only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive issues appeared to require permits, and persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference. In general the government did not permit demonstrations that could be seen as having a political purpose, and the government restricted the right of several unregistered religious groups to gather in worship.
On April 5, security services obstructed a meeting at a foreign ambassador’s residence between a foreign congressional delegation and five family members of political activists. In November police broke up a Protestant house church gathering in Haiphong. Several such “unregistered” religious gatherings also were broken up or obstructed in the Northwest Highlands, amid accusations by religious practitioners that local authorities sometimes used “contract thugs” to harass or beat them.
As in previous years, peaceful protests by citizens demanding redress for land rights claims frequently took place in Ho Chi Minh City. Police monitored these protests but generally did not disrupt them. In June and July, several hundred protesters camped in front of a government building in Ho Chi Minh City for more than 30 days. When several prominent members of the unrecognized Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam became involved, police broke up the protests (see section 1.f.). In addition, anti-China protests resulting from long-standing sovereignty disputes over the Spratly and Paracel Islands took place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City late in the year. Police monitored and dispersed protesters without significant violence.
Freedom of Association
The government severely restricted freedom of association. Opposition political parties were neither permitted nor tolerated. The government prohibited the legal establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF. However, some entities, including unregistered religious groups, were able to operate outside of this framework with little or no government interference.
In June the National Assembly passed the Ordinance on Grassroots Democracy, which is intended to allow villagers, with the participation of local VFF representatives, to convene meetings for the purpose of discussing and proposing solutions to local problems and nominating candidates for local leadership. The ordinance also attempts to encourage transparency in local governance by requiring commune governments to publicize how they raise and spend funds for local economic development. At year’s end implementation had not begun.
Bloc 8406, a political activist group that calls for the creation of a multiparty state, continued to exist even though senior members were arrested and jailed in a crackdown early in the year and others faced severe harassment for their peaceful political activities. Bloc 8406 claimed more than 2,000 supporters inside the country, although this number could not be verified. At least 10 members of the group were in detention at year’s end.
Authorities continued to arrest members of another activist group, the People’s Democratic Party of Vietnam, and a related group, the United Workers-Farmers Organization. Several individuals were tried and sentenced to prison terms, while others were in detention at year’s end.
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