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SE Asia's heavyweight human rights violator still flying under radar

Facing mounting pressure from the international community and seeking trade and security commitments, the Vietnamese government recently released five prisoners of conscience. I was one of them.

Such releases are always welcome, but they should not be confused with actual human rights improvements. There are an estimated 400 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. Even as a handful of dissidents were released, a larger number were detained or sentenced to prison terms. Many in Southeast Asia believe that Vietnam has replaced Myanmar as the region's worst violator of human rights.

The international community often focuses on pressing Vietnam for more prisoner releases. While I benefited from such attention, it often backfires as a diplomatic approach. The Vietnamese government treats prisoners of conscience as commodities to barter with the United States and other Western countries for security and trade benefits as well as foreign aid. Vietnam has stocked a reserve of prisoners of conscience for future bargaining.

After Vietnam became a member of the World Trade Organisation and gained permanent normal trade relations with the United States in early 2007, the Vietnamese government launched a brutal crackdown that has swept up intellectuals, artists, bloggers, journalists, labour activists and religious leaders. It goes on to this day.

Governments in the free world should demand that the Vietnamese government dismantle its arsenal of instruments for repression - starting with the repeal of Articles 79, 88 and 258 of its penal code - and link future trade and security benefits to such legal reforms. It is not too much to ask: These laws are not only a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - to which Vietnam has been a party since 1982 - but also contradict the Vietnamese constitution.

The sole purpose of these laws is to ensure the survival of the regime of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Article 88, which prohibits "propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam", silences critics of the party - journalists and bloggers and other dissidents. This is a direct violation of Article 16 of the constitution, which says "no person shall be discriminated against in political life" - in other words, no one may be harassed or persecuted, much less arrested or jailed, because of political views that are contrary to the views of the state.

Article 258, meanwhile, targets those "taking advantage of the right to democratic freedoms in order to violate the interests of the State", Vietnam has no true "democratic freedoms", but its constitution promises citizens their rights to freedom of expression, information, religion, assembly and association. "Taking advantage" of one's rights is a notion the government concocted to undermine the constitution so that the only real freedom Vietnamese citizens have is to completely agree with the Communist Party's policies.

While Articles 88 and 258 target individual dissidents, Article 79 is designed to prevent dissidents from organising themselves to compete politically. This law is used against anyone who peacefully organises to oppose the party's dominance or its policies. Independent labour unions, nascent political parties, religious organisations, civil society associations that refuse to submit to government oversight - all can be crushed by Article 79.

Two-thirds of the known prisoners of conscience are imprisoned under these three articles. While they may not be familiar to many people abroad, they are heroes to those of us who want to build a Vietnam that is both prosperous and protects fundamental human rights and the rule of law.

My residence in the United States affords me the freedom to express my opinions, and for that I am most grateful. Thus, I respectfully urge the US government and international community to use all relevant bilateral and multilateral venues, including negotiations on trade and security as well as loans from international financial institutions, to seek the immediate repeal of Articles 79, 88 and 258, and the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience charged under these articles.

Only by dismantling the instruments of repression will there be real and irreversible improvements in human rights in Vietnam.

Cu Huy Ha Vu is a constitutional scholar who twice sued Vietnam's current prime minister for unlawful conduct. Released from a Vietnamese prison last month, he now lives in the US state of Virginia. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.


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