Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

Vietnam maintained tight controls on political and religious dissent as economic reform continued, an approach that seemed to heighten internal tensions. The government continued to imprison people for peaceful dissent. Under sustained international pressure, however, it quietly released several dozen political prisoners held on security charges and provided certain others with minimally improved medical care. Conflict between the government and groups within the Buddhist community continued at high pitch, frictions with the Vatican increased, and Protestant evangelical groups suffered heightened repression. Vietnam engaged in discussions of human rights with a number of countries, including the United States, but an Australian delegation canceled a trip after Vietnam denied a visa to an outspoken member who told the BBC that one purpose of the visit was to investigate human rights issues.

Arbitrary detention remained a major concern. Nguyen Van Ho, a former senior party cadre and founder of an independent Vietnamese military veterans group, was arrested on March 7 for writing and distributing an autobiographical essay, which called for greater freedom, democracy and respect for human rights in Vietnam. He was held incommunicado for three months without trial until his failing health forced authorities to move him to a military hospital in late May. Nguyen Ho was allowed to return home on June 25, but at year's end, remained in extremely poor health and under house arrest.

One of Vietnam's best-known dissidents, Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, was transferred abruptly among three different prisons this year, ending up in Thanh Cam camp, a facility for common criminals in a remote and malarial part of Thanh Hoa province, where he was the only political prisoner. Arrested in November 1990, Dr. Hoat was given a fifteen-year sentence for producing the reformist newsletter Freedom Forum.

Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, an endocrinologist whose public call for political reform and respect for human rights earned him a twenty-year prison sentence in 1991, was placed in solitary confinement in August 1993 and was reported to be in poor health. Doan Thanh Liem, a constitutional law specialist, entered the fourth year of a twelve-year term for "counterrevolutionary propaganda" for his association with American businessman Michael Morrow and his writings on constitutional reform. He was reported to be suffering from a serious pulmonary condition.

The government released a number of political prisoners, some of whom had been the subject of international pressure. Tran Vong Quoc was released on June 5 from the Ham Tan prison camp, thirty months before his twelve-year sentence for "attempting to overthrow the government" was to expire. His activities included attempts to report executions and other abuses to human rights groups abroad. Human Rights Watch/Asia also received reports of the early release of several dozen prisoners held on security charges from Ham Tan prison in April and May, but was not able to confirm their identities. Well-known dissident Quach Vinh Nien, who had been imprisoned for sixteen years for publishing newspaper articles critical of the government, was also released early this year and allowed to rejoin his family in Australia.

The government improved medical treatment for some ill prisoners who had been the subject of international pressure. Nguyen Van Thuan, another Freedom Forum defendant, suffered a stroke on February 15 at the Ham Tan prison camp. After three days of being denied medical care, Thuan was admitted to a military hospital; at the end of the year, he still faced eventual return to prison.

The government kept a tight rein on a wide range of religious activities and engaged in outright repression of groups deemed reactionary. Tensions with the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), which has demanded institutional autonomy from the government, led to further protests and arrests. (In at least one case, a Buddhist monk not associated with the UBC was also arrested for his protests against religious repression.)

On August 7, a monk named Venerable Thich Giac Nguyen was taken away in a government car from the Phap Hoa Temple in Ho Chi Minh City after a two-day protest. The Vietnamese government confirmed his arrest, claiming he was arrested for "committing a number of dissident acts," and was being held for questioning. As of mid-November, his family had not received any information from authorities about his location or condition.

Police in Tra Vinh province reportedly arrested two Buddhist nuns at Ngoc Dat pagoda after Venerable Thich Hue Thau, a UBC supporter, immolated himself there on May 28. The nuns had reportedly been arrested when they requested permission to enter the temple to prepare Venerable Thau's remains for burial. As of November, it was not clear whether they were still in detention.

Many Buddhist leaders arrested and tried in 1993 for their involvement in protests remain imprisoned.

A crackdown was reported against ethnic Hmong converts to evangelical Protestant sects in Vietnam's northern provinces of Son La, Lai Chau and Ha Tuyen. Thao A Tong, a thirty-two-year-old local official and Christian convert, was arrested in January for proselytizing in Hong Thu village, Sonh Ho district of Lai Chau province. Additional arrests of Hmong Protestants reportedly took place in Lai Chau and Tuyen Quang provinces in February and April.

Vietnam was able to maintain its tight control over the Catholic church when the Vatican agreed in March to seek approval from the government for all clerical appointments, including those of bishops. On March 17, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry announced that the Holy See had also agreed not to appoint Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan as deputy to the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, and would assign him to a position in Rome. Bishop Thuan, former archbishop of Saigon in 1975 and a nephew of former South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, was imprisoned in Vietnam for thirteen years and had been living in exile in Rome since 1992.

Freedom of movement for priests remained restricted, sermons were subject to censorship, and church personnel were kept under close surveillance. At least eleven members of Catholic movements that the government considered reactionary remained imprisoned, They included Father Nguyen Van De other members of the Sacerdotal Maria Movement and the Movement of Humble Souls.

Vietnam continued to apply the death penalty to a wide range of crimes. On August 22, Le Thi Thu Ha, a policewoman from Nam Ha province, was sentenced to death for fraud in accordance with a 1991 amendment to the criminal code which expanded the application of the death penalty to cases of serious fraud and bribery.

Although the media continued to be state-controlled, press coverage of sensitive subjects, such as official corruption, was lively, and the doi moi or "renovation" policy allowed a wide range of authors to publish their work. Many other topics remained off-limits, however, such as challenges to the one-party system or criticism of Communist heros.

Elements in the party and government were apprehensive of the social and political impact of western influence in the wake of the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. Throughout the year articles appeared warning of schemes by both Vietnamese citizens and foreign governments to use the promotion of political pluralism and human rights, identified as "peaceful evolution," to destabilize the Vietnamese state. Citing "technical reasons," Vietnam in March canceled a week-long seminar at which a group of prominent foreign journalists was to provide training for Vietnamese reporters. The Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the meeting was canceled by security officials who had launched a campaign against "peaceful evolution" in the press and in meetings around the country at that time.

Vietnam's National Assembly drew up a labor code in June, which for the first time, gave Vietnamese workers the right to strike and prohibited unlawful forced labor. In the six months before its passage, there were eleven strikes in Ho Chi Minh City alone, compared to only twenty reported for all of Vietnam in the previous two years. Under the new labor code, the right to strike does not extend to workers at state-owned industries, or to private firms considered essential to the national economy or security. Additionally, those who organize strikes deemed to be unlawful by the government can be subject to administrative penalties.

The Right to Monitor

The government continued to isolate and punish Vietnamese citizens who criticized its human rights record. Authorities transferred Dr. Doan Viet Hoat five times since November 1993 to prevent him from issuing public statements about human rights conditions in Vietnam.

Vietnam allowed restricted access to the country by some international human rights and humanitarian agencies. It permitted a three-week visit by the U.N. Human Rights Commission's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in October, including a prison visit. However, Vietnam drew back from a planned visit by an Australian parliamentary consultative human rights delegation. Australia called off the trip when Vietnam canceled visits to a prison and ethnic minority areas, meetings with several ministries and the Vietnamese writers association, and denied a visa to a delegation member after that member publicly described a primary goal of the mission as investigating human rights.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintained a small staff in Vietnam to monitor the treatment of returned boat people, who now number over 60,000. In at least one case there is concern that an asylum-seeker deported from Hong Kong may have been arrested for political reasons. Nguyen Van Kha, a former student activist in Hanoi, was detained incommunicado after his return in January and faced the death penalty for crimes, including murder, that the government alleges he committed prior to his departure from Vietnam in 1990. Vietnam denied requests by both the UNHCR and the British Embassy for access to Kha and failed to produce a copy of Kha's original arrest warrant.

The Role of the International Community

Desire to bolster trade and investment with Vietnam tended to push human rights to a low priority for the international community.

The U.S. lifted a nineteen year-old trade embargo against Vietnam on February 3. In doing so, the Clinton administration announced that human rights would continue to be a major element in future relations with Vietnam. But the issue of prisoners of war and those missing in action from the Vietnam War, the so-called POW-MIA issue, continued to dominate all policy discussions, often to the exclusion of human rights issues more broadly.

The U.S. and Vietnam did initiate an official "dialogue" on human rights in which the U.S. raised cases of specific prisoners, and meetings were held in both February and August between State Department officials and Vietnam's U.N. ambassador. Little, however, emerged in the way of tangible results. An agreement was reached in May 1994 between Vietnam and the U.S., in which the State Department was given the right of consular access to American citizens of Vietnamese descent imprisoned in Vietnam. At the end of the year, access had been granted in some, but not all, cases.

The U.S. Congress continued to take a stronger stance in defense of Vietnamese political and religious prisoners than the administration, and members addressed numerous public and private appeals on their behalf to the Vietnamese government. On June 22, twenty-four members of Congress sent a letter to Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord urging him to raise human rights issues and specific cases during a visit to Hanoi that began on June 28. The letter, which was made public during Lord's visit, drew special attention to the cases of Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, Doan Thanh Liem, Freedom Forum member Pham Duc Kham, and Venerable Thich Huyen Quang. According to Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Mai, Lord requested information on the well-being of four Vietnamese imprisoned for political offenses during his visit. A concurrent resolution adopted by Congress on October 5 urged the administration to "place a high priority" on seeking the release of all nonviolent political prisoners and urging the government of Vietnam to allow access to its prisons by international humanitarian organizations.

Vietnam agreed on July 23 to the inclusion of a human rights clause as part of a new trade and cooperation pact that it was negotiating with the European Union. As of November, however, final agreement on the pact was still pending.

Hanoi hosted a number of high-ranking foreign officials in 1994, many of whom raised human rights concerns. Among the visitors were Dutch Foreign Minister Peter Kooijmans, who discussed human rights with his Vietnamese counterpart during a March 10 meeting, and Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who held a discussion of human rights with Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet on April 7. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd also raised the issue of human rights with Vietnamese leaders during a two-day visit in September, and submitted a list of specific cases. Although Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama met with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi in late August, human rights concerns were conspicuously absent in his discussions. As of the time of Murayama's visit, Japan had pledged a total of approximately $640 million through its Official Development Aid (ODA) program, making it Vietnam's largest foreign aid donor. Japan's ODA program requires the government to "pay full attention" to the human rights situation in recipient countries.

In March, the U.N. Human Rights Commission voted to remove Vietnam from a confidential "1503" procedure under which human rights abuses were being investigated.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Asia

Human Rights Watch/Asia continued its efforts to document and publicize political and religious imprisonment while maintaining a dialogue with the Vietnamese government through meetings with officials in the U.S. It also sought to broaden its human rights advocacy by keeping various governments, international organizations and members of the business community apprised of human rights concerns and urging them to press Vietnam for concrete improvements.

Human Rights Watch/Asia provided briefings and case studies to representatives of various foreign governments and international bodies such as the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. It also worked closely with U.S. legislators on Vietnam policy. On February 9, it submitted written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging the Clinton administration to ensure that human rights remain a long-term component of U.S. policy as relations with Vietnam develop. It supported a request by several members of the Senate on February 4 that the administration issue a full report to Congress on the progress of the human rights "dialogue" no later than February 1, 1995.

On March 28, in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific Affairs, Human Rights Watch/Asia drew special attention to the repression of religious dissent. It encouraged the U.S. to work together with other countries to press Vietnam to allow international organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, to provide humanitarian services to prisoners and to allow diplomatic observers to attend key political trials.

Human Rights Watch/Asia also released press statements expressing concern over the arrest of Nguyen Van Ho, and the transfer of Dr. Doan Viet Hoat to a remote jungle camp.

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