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Peaceful dissidents and bloggers arbitrarily locked up

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, April 8, 2011 - Dozens of peaceful advocates for democratic reforms, rule of law, religious freedom, and human rights face arbitrary detention and harsh prison sentences, with no respite in sight, Human Rights Watch said today, on the fifth anniversary of the founding of the democracy movement known as Block 8406.

"With a steady stream of people being locked up for nothing more than asking for their rights, the situation is critical," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Vietnam's donors and development partners need to forcefully express their public support for Vietnam's courageous activists and call for the immediate release of all who have been arbitrarily detained."

Named for its inception date of April 8, 2006, Block 8406 swelled into a movement of thousands through online petitions calling for respect for basic human rights, establishment of a multiparty political system, and guarantees of freedom of religion and political association. Vietnamese authorities respond with harassment and arrests to nonviolent appeals by Block 8406 and other groups advocating for democracy and human rights.

Since June 2010, Vietnamese authorities have arrested and detained at least 24 dissidents, house church activists, and bloggers, many of whom have been held incommunicado for many months without access to legal counsel or to their families.

During the last month alone, courts sentenced a prominent legal activist, Cu Huy Ha Vu, to seven years in prison on April 4; upheld harsh sentences for three young labor activists on March 18; and sentenced Chau Heng, a land rights activist and member of the Khmer Krom ethnic minority in An Giang province, to two years in prison on March 31. On April 8, Vu Duc Trung and Le Van Thanh, who have been held by Hanoi police since June 2010, will be tried for broadcasting information from an illicit house-based radio station about the Falun Gong religion.

In an attempt to shut down popular support for Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, on April 4 police in Hanoi arrested Pham Hong Son, a physician, and Le Quoc Quan, a lawyer, as they approached the People's Court of Hanoi on Hai Ba Trung street, where the trial was taking place. Initially, authorities indicated the trial would be open, but then the area surrounding the court was cordoned off and guarded by police and civil defense forces.

Le Quoc Quan is a former fellow of the US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) who was previously arrested on March 8, 2007, four days after his return from the United States. The authorities detained him for 100 days on charges of carrying out activities to overthrow the government, under article 79 of the penal code. He was released on June 16, 2007.

A pro-democracy activist, Pham Hong Son was arrested on March 27, 2002, on espionage charges, under article 80 of the penal code, for using the internet to communicate with fellow dissidents and to disseminate pro-democracy articles and statements. The authorities sentenced him to 13 years in prison in June 2003, which was later reduced to five years upon appeal, followed by three years on probation. The government gave him amnesty and released him on August 30, 2006.

"The government is playing a game of guilt by proximity by arresting Pham Hong Son and Le Quoc Quan for standing near the court," Robertson said. "It only adds certainty that this show trial is a new high-water mark in a continuing crack-down on human rights advocates in Vietnam."

Vietnamese prison authorities routinely mistreat and torture political detainees during interrogation to pressure them to sign pre-written confessions and to disclose information about other activists. During pretrial detention, which can last up to 20 months, political detainees are often shackled in solitary confinement in dark cells and allowed out only for interrogation and abuse.

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