A HUMAN rights watchdog on Monday called on Vietnam’s foreign donors to pressure the government into releasing Tran Thi Nga, a blogger who faces a trial tomorrow (July 25) for criticising the administration.
Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said the Vietnamese government consistently goes to extremes to silence its critics, targeting activists like Tran Thi Nga with “bogus” charges that carry long prison sentences.
He claimed the families of the critics are often subjected to harassment and abuse.
“Foreign donors should use their leverage to push for Tran Thi Nga’s release now, and make it clear that closer relations depend on Vietnam tolerating its critics, rather than sending them to prison,” he said in a statement on Monday.
Tran Thi Nga, also known as Thuy Nga, is set to face trial at the People’s Court of Ha Nam province tomorrow following her Jan 21 arrest for “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the penal code. She faces up to 12 years in prison.
The 40-year-old activist will appear in court one month after fellow rights activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as “Mother Mushroom”, was sentenced to 10 years in prison under Article 88 in a one-day trial.
HRW said Mother Mushroom’s long prison sentence raises significant concerns that other activists facing national security charges like Tran Thi Nga may also be hit with harsh penalties for exercising their rights.
State media reported that Tran Thi Nga was arrested for having “accessed the Internet to post a number of video clips and articles” critical of the government.
HRW has consistently described Article 88 as a draconian national security provision regularly used to arbitrarily punish critics and stifle dissent. It says Article 88 recasts peaceful political speech as “propaganda against the state” deserving of harsh sanction.
As a national security offence, HRW said Article 88 also allows for detained individuals to be held incommunicado during the investigation period under Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code.
Tran Thi Nga’s arrest, the watchdog added, is part of Vietnam’s ongoing crackdown on bloggers and activists who have been charged with vaguely interpreted national security violations.
The dissident is among 100 activists who are currently imprisoned by the government.
Tran Thi Nga is a longtime labour rights activist who has fought against abuses including trafficking, police brutality, and land confiscation.
HRW said Vietnamese officials have subjected Tran Thi Nga to years of intimidation, harassment, and physical assault in response to her consistent political activism.
The attacks against Tran Thi Nga, it added, are part of a broader pattern of violent assaults against rights campaigners across Vietnam.
Last month, the rights group documented 36 cases of bloggers and activists being intimidated, threatened, and beaten by thugs, sometimes in direct view of police, who usually fail to intervene, investigate, or arrest assailants.
Human Rights Watch also found that some victims such as Tran Thi Nga were later arrested under Article 88, raising the question of the authorities’ ties to the assailants.
“The Vietnamese government should order an end to all attacks and hold those responsible accountable,” HRW said.
Tran Thi Nga’s lawyer, Ha Huy Son, said the activist’s health in the Ha Nam Detention Center where she is being held is deteriorating. Her requests to seek medical treatment at a hospital in June 2017 were denied, the lawyer said.
HRW said the Internet has also become the latest arena for the government’s crackdown on critics, adding the authorities blocked Facebook access during large-scale protests and pressured multinationals to pull advertising from the social media sites.
Robertson said Tran Thi Nga is part of a growing community of Vietnamese rights bloggers and activists who use Facebook and YouTube to voice criticisms, share updates about protests and detainees, and support one another in their struggles for political freedom.
“The thugs who threatened and attacked Tran Thi Nga are precisely the ones who should be facing investigation – not someone who spoke out against rights violations happening in her country,” he said.
“The government’s efforts to suppress peaceful expression online and on the ground have only made its critics more determined in asserting their fundamental right to free speech.”