Peaceful activist sent to "education center" for 24 months
Police arrested Bui Thi Minh Hang, 47, on November 27 outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City for allegedly "causing public disorder." She was conducting a silent protest against the arrests of peaceful protesters in Hanoi earlier that morning. The next day the police ordered her detained without trial at the "education center."
"There is no justification for the Vietnamese authorities to pack off a peaceful protester to what is effectively a forced labor camp," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Detaining Bui Thi Minh Hang without trial shows a disturbing disregard for her human rights and guarantees for freedom of expression contained in Vietnam's own constitution."
Bui Thi Minh Hang is a land rights activist who recently emerged as a prominent critic of the Chinese government. She participated in Sunday protests against Chinese territorial claims on the Spratly and Paracel islands that took place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City between June and August.
The Hanoi Municipal People's Committee ordered Bui Thi Minh Hang's 24-month administrative detention under Ordinance 44 on Handling of Administrative Violations. She had no opportunity to contest the decision in a court.
Article 25 of the ordinance gives officials extremely broad authority to lock people up on arbitrary, ill-defined grounds. Anyone can be sent to an "education center" if it is determined that they have "committed acts of infringing upon the properties of domestic or foreign organizations, the properties, health, honor and/or dignity of citizens or foreigners, breaking social order and safety regularly but not to the extent of being examined for penal liability."
Bui Thi Minh Hang's lawyer, Ha Huy Son, has challenged the detention through a complaint to Chairman Nguyen The Thao of the Hanoi Municipal People's Committee, saying that the arrest and order were illegal. There has been no response to the complaint.
"Ordinance 44 allows police and local authorities to skip the courts to punish people they don't like," Robertson said. "It's a dangerous ordinance that makes a mockery of the Vietnamese government's claim to respect the rule of law, and it should be repealed."
In their decision on Bui Thi Minh Hang, the Hanoi Municipal People's Committee also cited Decree 76, which provides guidance for sending people to "education centers." Article 30 of the decree states that those who are sent to "education centers" must "work eight hours per day" and must "fulfill the assigned quota."
Article 26 of the decree allows the center director to decide arbitrarily whether the term should be extended if "the person who has completed his or her term does not really make progress." If a detainee does not fulfill the assigned work quota or runs afoul of center officials, he or she may be disciplined for not "making progress" and arbitrarily held for another period of "management and education."
Vietnam has previously cracked down on activists publicly critical of the Chinese government. In 2008, nine days before the Beijing Olympic torch traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, authorities arrested the activist Nguyen Van Hai (pen name Dieu Cay), who has blogged critically about China's claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands as well as other issues. He was later sentenced to 30 months in prison on a trumped-up tax evasion charge and has been held incommunicado since October 20, 2010, the day of his scheduled release.
In November 2011, Vietnam sentenced Vu Duc Trung and Le Van Thanh to five years in prison for broadcasting a Falun Gong radio program into China. Falun Gong is banned in China but not in Vietnam.
Prior to her most recent arrest, Bui Thi Minh Hang had been detained at least four times in five months for participating in protests. She was arrested on October 16 while walking with friends around the Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi and wearing a conical hat with the letters HS-TS-VN, which are Vietnamese acronyms for "Spratly - Paracel - Vietnam." Several people in civilian clothes seized her hat and destroyed it. When she called for help from the police, they arrested her.
Police held her from October 16 to19, during which time she went on a hunger strike. She was also detained briefly on August 2 for standing outside the court and peacefully supporting Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, who was appealing his conviction for "conducting propaganda against the State."
The Spratly and Paracel islands are claimed by China, Vietnam, and other countries. The Vietnamese government has a long history of arbitrarily arresting and detaining people who speak out on what are deemed sensitive foreign policy issues.
"Detaining people for expressing their views on relations with neighboring countries is as much a rights violation as detaining them for talking about problems at home," Robertson said. "The right to free speech includes speaking out on matters both domestic and international."