Human Rights Watch calls on authorities to free peaceful land rights activists
Duong Kim Khai, Pham Van Thong, Tran Thi Thuy, and Cao Van Tinh are appealing their convictions for "subversion against the people's administration" under article 79 of the penal code, and sentences of 5 to 8 years in prison ordered by the People's Court of Ben Tre on May 30. The authorities alleged that the four were found in possession of anti-government documents, which government media characterized as "calling for a multiple party system and distort[ing] the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam" and that three belonged to a banned overseas Vietnamese political organization. Three other members of the group – Nguyen Thanh Tam, Nguyen Chi Thanh, and Pham Ngoc Hoa – were each sentenced to two years in prison and did not appeal.
"Judging by their rolling crackdown on those who express dissenting views, Vietnam's leaders seem to think that they can sign international human rights treaties with invisible ink," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The UN and Vietnam's donors need to speak up loud and clear to condemn Hanoi's actions, and demand the release of everyone it has imprisoned for exercising their right to peaceful expression, association, and assembly."
All of the defendants have for many years helped aggrieved citizens who are resisting land confiscations and fighting for land rights. Pastor Duong Kim Khai, the leader of the so-called Mennonite Cattle Shed congregation in Ho Chi Minh City, has assisted land rights petitioners from the Mekong Delta to file complaints with local, provincial, and national authorities. The congregation has been based in the cattle barn of a supporter since the previous house of worship was seized by authorities.
Tran Thi Thuy, a Hoa Hao Buddhist follower, has been struggling with authorities for many years to regain her family's land, which was confiscated by local officials. The two other defendants were also targeted for their persistent land rights activism. The defendants are not known to have advocated violence.
While Human Rights Watch takes no position on the underlying merits of the land rights petitions, defending people with grievances and peacefully criticizing the government are activities that should be protected under the right of freedom of expression in international law.
"There is no evidence that the accused did anything more than support the human rights of desperate local people with their backs against the wall, facing the loss of their lands and homes, where their families have lived for generations," Robertson said. "By claiming those actions amount to subverting the government, Vietnam government authorities are displaying their contempt for those trying to assist the rural poor and the landless, whose support has been one of the pillars of the Vietnam Communist Party since its founding."