Vietnam intensifies crackdown on dissent as Communist Party congress nears, activists say

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Vietnam has intensified its crackdown on dissent with authorities increasing the harassment of political prisoners who are growing in numbers, ahead of the country’s ruling Communist Party congress, rights group said.

International human rights groups and lawmakers question whether the crackdown has breached the spirit of trade agreements with Western countries – accords that have helped propel the country to a position of economic strength in Southeast Asia.

The congress, considered its most important meeting in years – to be held at the end of January till the beginning of February – is a gathering to determine national leadership and policy that takes place once every five years.

“I have been summoned by the police several times since December 9, 2020,” said Nguyen Quang A, a veteran activist in Hanoi, declining to detail the circumstances saying he was subject to an on-going investigation.

Quang Atold Reuters Vietnam’s security ministry had in recent weeks rounded up other government critics without saying why, citing his contacts with activists.

“They (the police) summon them and find reasons to convict them under those very fuzzy articles of criminal law. It completely violates the law but they use it very regularly,” said Quang A. “I’ve told them they can’t shut me up.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which handles inquiries from foreign media, did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on activist detentions.

Despite reforms and increasing openness to social change, the Communist Party of Vietnam, led by 76-year-old Nguyen PhuTrong, tolerates little criticism and controls domestic media tightly.

Vietnam drew international condemnation this month when it sentenced three freelance journalists known for criticism of government to between 11 and 15 years in prison, finding them guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda.

The country’s constitution says it protects “freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations”.

In reality, public criticism of the Party is not tolerated, and groups which promote democratisation are targeted by the authorities in a battle playing out online on platforms like Facebook, Vietnam’s premier platform for both e-commerce and dissent.

A Reuters tally based on state media reports found 280 people were arrested for “anti-state” activities over the five years since the last Party congress: 260 were convicted, many being sentenced to more than 10 years in jail. In the five years leading up to the 2016 congress, there were 68 arrests and 58 convictions.

Last year, Amnesty International said it had recorded the most “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam since it began publishing figures in 1996 – 170, close to double the 97 recorded in 2018. Of the 170, some 70 were detained for online activism, Amnesty said.

In late 2017, Vietnam unveiled a 10,000-strong military cyber unit, Force 47, to counter what it said were “wrong” views on the internet. According to rights groups, the unit also recruits volunteers online to target dissidents and activists.

Facebook’s local servers had been taken offline by the government earlier last year until it agreed to significantly increase policing of “anti-state” posts by local users, a request with which Facebook previously said it complied.

A Facebook spokesman said the company faced “additional pressure” from Vietnam to restrict content last year.

After the jailing of the three journalists earlier this month, the UN human rights office said, “Coming just weeks ahead (of the Party congress), the convictions and long sentences are not only a blatant suppression of independent journalism but also a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those willing to criticise the government.”

The United States described the sentences as the “latest in a troubling and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution”. (Source: CNA)

 

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