09/19/2023, 15.42
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Human and religious rights cast a shadow over US-Vietnamese agreements

Two Vietnamese activists are on their way to the United States thanks to a deal negotiated before Biden's visit; another couple is already in Germany. A private agreement promises improvements to freedom of worship and NGO activities. Yet 374 activists are at risk of arrest or closely monitored, while 190 are in jail, laments advocacy groups Project 88.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Two Vietnamese activists unjustly detained by Vietnam’s communist government according to US authorities are moving to the United States thanks to a deal struck by the two countries before last week’s visit by US President Joe Biden to Hanoi.

A human rights lawyer who campaigned for police accountability, a Catholic parishioner evicted from his home for his activism and faith, and their families are leaving Vietnam for the United States under the "Priority 1" refugee programme, US officials told Reuters.

Neither activist was in prison, but both had been barred from leaving Vietnam, and were under constant surveillance

Last Friday, Catholic legal expert Nguyễn Bắc Truyển was released; with his wife, he left for Germany where he was granted asylum (pictured).

At the time of his arrest on 30 July 2017, he was actively working with the Redemptorists, who have also been targeted by the government over the control of some land.

On 5 April 2018, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison and three years of house arrest for "promoting activities aimed at overthrowing" the government.

The US-Vietnam deal includes the release two more activists subject of a campaign for their release in the United States.

Vietnam has also signed a private agreement to make progress on religious freedom, non-governmental organisation (NGO) operations in the country, prison conditions, and labour laws. The contents of the private agreement were not previously reported.

This comes as the two countries, once enemies, agree to an historic partnership. As a result, Vietnam has granted the United States its highest diplomatic recognition, alongside China and Russia.

The Biden administration faces criticism over the agreements at home (from the Republican Party) and abroad over its diplomacy with Vietnam, as well as India and Saudi Arabia, countries that deny the political freedoms enjoyed in the West, and over its negotiations around a prisoner swap with Iran.

In fact, repression continues in Vietnam. Project 88, a rights advocacy focused on Vietnam, has documented the crackdown in the Southeast Asian country, collecting data on political prisoners and people arrested for crimes of conscience, including defending religious freedom.

As of 19 September 2023, at least 374 activists are at risk of arrest or closely monitored by the authorities. Another 190 activists are in prison, and 98 women activists are persecuted. As for ethnic minorities, 71 leading figures have been targeted by the government.

In recent years, Vietnam’s communist regime has cracked down on activists, dissidents and people whose only fault is to belong to ethnoreligious minorities like the Montagnards (Người Thượng, highlanders) and the Hmong.

Members of these communities are often victims of persecution and discrimination because they fought alongside the United States during the latter’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Previously, between 2001 and 2004, thousands of Montagnards fled the central highlands of Vietnam to neighbouring Cambodia.

Environmentalists have also been arrested (including "Mother Mushroom", a Catholic activist, pictured 1), as have bloggers, ordinary Vietnamese who protested against Beijing's expansionism in the South China Sea and advocates of religious freedom.

Activists and critics have suffered various types of abuse, as Project 88 has documented, including physical attacks, questioning by police, fines, forced evictions, and loss of passports.

Even those released from prison or acquitted remain under the watchful eye of police and security officials.

Project 88’s website is updated daily with information about arrests and abuses that are rarely reported elsewhere thanks to information from family members, articles from state media and independent newspapers, court rulings, social media posts, NGO reports, and international groups.

Vietnam is reportedly drafting new rules designed to further restrict online information, banning social media users from posting news-related content without registering as a journalist.

"It's outrageous that President Biden chose to upgrade diplomatic ties with Vietnam at a time when the one-party state is in the middle of a brutal crackdown on activism, dissent and civil society," said Ben Swanton, co-director of Project 88.

For its part, the US administration has a different point of view. “While we wish that we could have gotten many more people out ahead of the president's visit, we do believe that this increased partnership and the strengthened relationship gives us the vehicles and the processes we need to keep working on these issues with Vietnamese friends,” a US official said.

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