Vietnam increases repression on eve of congress to mark its future

By Eric San Juan

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Jan 22 (efe-epa).- Vietnam has increased the pressure on dissidents with arrests, prison sentences and other forms of harassment, as the XIII Congress of the Communist Party approaches, which from Monday will shape the country’s policies for the next five years.

In the congress, which will take place from Jan. 25 to Feb. 2, some 1,600 party delegates countrywide will elect the 200 members of the central committee, who will choose 20 members of the Politburo. This is the highest body of leaders and appoints the general secretary of the party, the position that holds the greatest power in the country.

“In recent months, the communist regime in Vietnam has stepped up its heavy hand against local dissent by arresting activists, condemning a dozen and harassing others,” Vu Quoc Ngu, director of the dissident group Defend the Defenders, told EFE by email.

Among the forms of harassment Ngu cites are interrogations at police stations, coercion of homeowners or business premises to break the rental agreement with dissident tenants, or pressure on employers to fire suspicious workers.

The last notorious conviction occurred Wednesday, when the activist Dinh Thi Thu Thuy was sentenced to seven years in prison for violating article 117 of the Criminal Code, which punishes “the production, storage and dissemination of information, documents and objects“ against Vietnam.

Thuy, a single mother of a nine-year-old boy, was accused of the propagating in several Facebook accounts of content considered propaganda and defamatory of leaders of the Communist Party and the government and inciting dissenting thoughts with false news.

Critical posts on this social network, which has nearly 50 million users in the country, have been the main reason for the arrest of the nearly 300 activists and the conviction of nearly 260 of them in the last five years (according to data from Defend the Defenders.) This coincides with the second term at the head of the Party of Nguyen Phu Trong, also President of the Republic.

Although the Vietnamese constitution claims to protect freedom of opinion and press, access to information, the right to assembly, and the formation of associations and demonstrations, the Communist one-party system in power since 1975 exhibits little tolerance against criticism.

The harshest sentence has been that of Pham Chi Dung, president and founder of the Association of Independent Journalists of Vietnam, sentenced in January to 15 years in prison for violating article 117.

Dung, a 54-year-old former Communist Party official, was arrested in November 2019, days after releasing a letter in English calling on European parliamentarians to demand significant human rights advances from Vietnam in exchange for signing a treaty on free trade with the European Union.

The agreement finally came into force this year with little to satisfy requests from human rights groups.

The absence of international pressure, especially from Europe and the United States, is for some analysts one of the keys to this resurgence of pressure in a country that continues with a policy of opening-up reforms of the economy without loosening its iron control one iota of political power.

Ngu said that in the last five years, not only have arrests and convictions increased, but penalties for convicts have also tightened.

“A decade ago, the accusation of carrying out propaganda against the state involved only three or four years in prison, while in recent cases activists have received sentences of between seven and 15 years,” he said.

This increase in repression, especially in the last three years, has meant for Ngu a cooling of the dissident movement. In 2018, this led to demonstrations with hundreds of people against a cybersecurity law and the granting of special economic zones to China, something unpublished in Vietnam.

“Before 2018, people could hold peaceful demonstrations, but now few dare to take part in protests since the regime is willing to arrest and put them in prison on charges of causing public disorder,” he said.

Ngu said authorities have acted against civil society organizations, such as the Association of Independent Journalists, the Liberal Publishing House, which produced digital books critical of the authorities, or the dissident association Brotherhood for Democracy.

Control of digital content was toughened with the implementation of a controversial cybersecurity law that, among other things, forces technology companies to suppress content at the behest of the government and to provide authorities with user information.

The suppression of content has sparked a dispute between the government and these platforms, especially Facebook.

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