Biden Trip Offers Little Hope to 'Desperate' Vietnam Activists

Vietnam's journalist Le Anh Hung, sentenced to five years in jail, gives an interview with AFP in Hanoi on September 5, 2023. Photo by AFP

Hanoi, Vietnam -- Tried in secret for "abusing democratic freedoms" and detained in a psychiatric hospital, journalist Le Anh Hung knows well the price of standing up to Vietnam's communist government.

A noted critic of the Vietnamese state, Hung, 50, spent three years held against his will in a psychiatric facility before being put on trial without the knowledge of his family and sentenced to five years in jail.

Hung was charged with the anti-state provision of "abusing democratic freedoms" after he says he accused several top leaders of serious crimes. The details of his alleged crimes however have not been made public.

The former blogger for US-funded Voice of America was released in July and later told AFP of his experiences at the hands of the government, which tolerates no dissent to one-party rule.

"They tried to force me to take medicine. I refused," he said of his time on the psychiatric ward.

"But they tied my hands, my legs and even my shoulders to a bed, then they injected me."

US President Joe Biden visits Vietnam on Sunday pushing closer ties as Washington seeks to reduce its reliance on China.

But while Biden has often criticised Beijing's human rights record, he has largely stayed quiet on Vietnam, and campaigners are not hopeful he will use his visit to press the issue.

Vietnam's rights record is "dire in virtually all areas", according to Human Rights Watch.

Government critics face intimidation, harassment, restricted movement, arbitrary arrest and detention, and imprisonment after unfair trials, and there are reports of police torture to extract confessions, HRW says.

A crackdown on dissent has been escalating since 2016 under Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and the government has largely succeeded in crushing opposition, activists say.

Since 2022, five environmental campaigners have also been detained in a crackdown on civil society groups.

The arrests have come as Vietnam welcomes the expected arrival of billions of dollars of international aid to help wean the country off fossil fuels.

The government said in a statement this year that "protecting and promoting human rights is a consistent policy of the Vietnamese state".

It did not respond to a recent request for comment from AFP.

- Activists jailed -

There are currently 193 activists in Vietnamese prisons, according to The 88 Project, which advocates for freedom of expression in the country.

They include noodle seller Peter Lam Bui, who went viral for impersonating Salt Bae after the celebrity chef served a gold-leaf steak to a powerful Vietnamese official during a trip to London.

Lam was jailed for "anti-state propaganda" and his appeal was rejected last week.

And prominent climate activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong, who had been widely recognised for her work, is in pre-trial detention over alleged tax evasion.

For those that are left in the democracy movement, the picture is bleak.

"I think the Communist Party has certainly been successful in curbing the voice of people like myself," said Nguyen Vu Binh, 54, a political activist who served almost five years in jail in the early 2000s.

Civil society groups have been dissolved and what protests there used to be have mostly stopped, while a draconian cybersecurity law has smothered online debate.

But while the situation has worsened, Washington has been ramping up ties with Vietnam as it seeks to counter Beijing's influence in the region and diversify supply chains away from the likes of China and Russia.

A spokesperson for the US State Department told AFP that "human rights is a topic we raise at the highest levels with Vietnam".

But with geopolitical concerns dominating, most activists have little hope that Biden's visit will do much to change Vietnam's behaviour.

"I do not expect any serious push (for change) from the US and the EU," said Le Cong Dinh, a former human rights lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City who was imprisoned for subversion.

"These countries look at Vietnam as a strategic partner for their security and trade policies in Southeast Asia... human rights protection is no longer a top priority issue in the relationship, especially during Russia's war in Ukraine."

- Torture allegations -

Some, like Nguyen Truong Chinh, whose son is on death row, continue to protest no matter the consequences.

Chinh has been campaigning to free his son Nguyen Van Chuong -- whose murder conviction came after allegations of torture -- for 16 years, and faces regular harassment from authorities.

"I have not asked for an amnesty or a sentence reduction, because he is innocent," Chinh, 77, told AFP.

Chuong's sentence was condemned as "arbitrary and a violation of the right to life" by the United Nations, which last month demanded an immediate halt to his looming execution.

For the moment, he is still alive.

But his father says "it has been a slow death" for the rest of the family, as their noisy push for release aggravates the government.

"I want to help but I feel very desperate," Chinh said.

For Hung, his belief in a good future for Vietnam remains.

There will be a "Vietnam with freedom and democracy and human rights", he said.

© Agence France-Presse

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