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End chokehold on dissent before Party Congress, urges Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, January 11, 2011 - The Vietnam Communist Party should renounce its practice of tightening controls on peaceful dissent in the lead up to the Eleventh Party Congress and free those who have been imprisoned, detained, and censored, Human Rights Watch said today. The nine-day congress, which starts on January 12, 2011, will determine the party's leadership and direction for the next five years.

There has been a dramatic spike in repression as the date for the congress nears. This reflects recent high-level directives instructing authorities throughout the country to ensure that dissidents, religious freedom activists, land rights petitioners, and ethnic minorities belonging to independent religious groups do not to stir up trouble before and during the congress.

"Why are Vietnam's leaders still afraid to hear the concerns of their own citizens?" said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "As they plan for the next five years, Vietnam's leaders should come up with a plan to improve their dismal human rights record, instead of clearing the decks for their meeting by arresting and intimidating critics."

As an example of recent directives to silence critics, on December 30, 2010, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued an official notice, No. 2402/CD-TTg. "The government at all levels must concentrate on effectively dealing with all complicated and sensitive issues related to ethnic minorities, religion and large groups of petitioners," it says. "Do not allow anything complicated to happen so that hostile forces can distort the situation and stir up resistance."

Twenty-five years after the Sixth Party Congress of 1986 in which the government embarked on the policy of "renovation," and 19 years after Vietnam approved its 1992 constitution, which enshrines human rights as a top national priority, Vietnam's progress on human rights and governance reforms remains abysmal, Human Rights Watch said.

"At the congress, the new leaders should break with the past and embrace a new vision that respects people's right to peaceful and free expression, assembly, and association." Robertson said. "But rather than encouraging open debate, the leadership is obsessed with silencing critical voices."

With security forces on high alert throughout the country, last week's incident in which a US diplomat was assaulted by police in Hue while trying to visit a dissident Catholic priest, Nguyen Van Ly, comes as no surprise, Human Rights Watch said.

"The shocking assault on a foreign diplomat that became an international incident only points out that ordinary Vietnamese citizens get heavy-handed treatment like this by the police every day, far from the public spotlight," Robertson said. "The point is that Vietnamese citizens deserve the same rights as anyone to assemble peacefully, express themselves, travel, or form associations."

There has been a steady stream of political trials and arrests of dozens of democracy activists, independent writers, online critics, and members of unsanctioned religious groups. More than 400 people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for the exercise of fundamental rights.

In Orwellian fashion, Human Rights Watch said, many activists are imprisoned on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms" of speech, assembly, and association to "infringe upon the interests of the state," under article 258 of the Penal Code.

"Crackdowns on peaceful government critics are nothing new in Vietnam," Robertson said. "There is an ongoing chokehold on political repression that tightens prior to any high-profile event."

( . . . )

To read the full statement, click here

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