The number of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam has risen by a third over the past year amid a continuing crackdown on freedom of expression in the Southeast Asian nation, Amnesty International has said.
The London-based human rights group said on Monday it had counted at least 128 people in jail for expressing their views, a 10th of them for online activity, by the end of March 2019. There were 97 people in detention the previous year, it said.
The Amnesty list included only the names of those who could be verified, suggesting the number of detained people was likely to be higher.
“This research shows that Vietnam’s tightening stranglehold on every area of public and private life,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s director for East and Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
Bequelin added that Vietnamese people’s right to speak their minds was increasingly at risk.
“The Vietnamese authorities are becoming more thin-skinned by the day,” Bequelin said. “It’s their own citizens who are paying a terrible price simply because of something they said or someone they met.”
The Amnesty report comes as the government in Vietnam moves to deepen diplomatic ties with both the United States and the European Union. US officials are due to travel to Vietnam this week for a “human rights dialogue” that is usually held every two years.
Dhevy Sivaprakasam, a Bangkok-based international associate legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, said the crackdown was not only taking place in the context of global and regional concern about online content, but also amid uncertainty about Vietnam’s leadership.
There are concerns about the health of 75-year-old President Nguyen Phu Trong, who also heads the ruling Communist Party.
His predecessor, Tran Dai Quang, who took office in 2016, died in September last year of a serious illness at the age of 61.
“The crackdown intensified from 2016,” Sivaprakasam told Al Jazeera. “But there have been more cases and the sentences are getting tougher. They are trying to crack down on dissent and any form of discussion online.”
Given the worsening crackdown, she said the US and the EU should put more pressure on Vietnam over its human rights commitments.
A new penal code with what Amnesty described as “overly broad, unclear and vague provisions” took effect in 2018. At least 34 people have already been prosecuted under the revised legislation, the rights group said.
Amnesty said activists were charged mostly under Article 117 of the code, which prohibits “making, storing, disseminating or propagandising materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.
Other frequently-used provisions include Article 118, which prohibits “disrupting national security” and Article 331, which prohibits “abusing democratic freedom to violate the interests of the state”.
In its weekly update that was published on Sunday, Defend the Defenders, a Vietnamese human rights network, noted that Vietnam continued to “suppress local dissent”.
It said that on May 10 two women were found guilty of “conducting anti-state propaganda” – an offence under Article 117 – after being arrested for handing out leaflets last October calling for demonstrations against bills on special economic zones and cybersecurity. One of the women was sentenced to five years in prison and the other to six.
Other cases in the network’s update included a crackdown on drivers protesting against a toll road, investigations into an anti-corruption activist, a Vietnamese-US man accused of subversion who had been unable to meet his lawyer despite an impending trial and a teacher fined for material shared on Facebook.
The new Cybersecurity Law, which came into effect on January 1, was likely to mean more “invasive surveillance methods”, Amnesty said.
Vietnam’s prisoners of conscience are often held in solitary confinement in squalid cells, denied medical care as well as access to clean water and fresh air, it added.
Student and freelance journalist Phan Kim Khanh was arrested in March 2017 and tried and convicted seven months later under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code for “conducting propaganda” against the state.
The allegations against him included that he ran two anti-corruption blogs and other social media sites, and that he was in touch with “overseas reactionaries”, including former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Van Hai (also known as blogger Dieu Cay) who was released into exile in the US.
Phan was sentenced to six years in jail and four years of house arrest.
Tran Thi Nga is a member of the Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, an independent advocacy group.
She was arrested at her home in northern Vietnam in January 2017 with the state-controlled media reporting she had been “caught posting video clips and documents containing anti-state propaganda on the internet”.
Tran, who endured harassment and intimidation for her work and taking part in protests, was put on trial in July 2017 and found guilty of “conducting propaganda” against the state under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. She was jailed for nine years with five years of house arrest.
Tran Hoang Phuc is a pro-democracy and environmental activist, who was selected for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) that was set up by former US President Barack Obama.
Tran, who is also part of the Chan Hung Nuoc Viet (Reviving Vietnam) campaign, was arrested in June 2017 at his home in Hanoi and accused of “conducting propaganda” against the state under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code.
He was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison and four years of house arrest.