Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. At least six deaths attributed to abuse in custody were alleged; authorities attributed these deaths to suicide or medical problems or offered no cause of death. There were no reliable data on overall death rates and causes in prisons. According to the Ministry of Public Security, there were 36 deaths while in custody or incarceration, including 21 by diseases, nine by suicide, four by accidents, and two from injuries incurred in fights between prisoners.
Authorities sometimes harassed and intimidated families who questioned the police determination of cause of death. In a small number of cases in prior years, the government held police officials responsible, typically several years after the death. Despite guidance from the Supreme People’s Court to charge police officers responsible for deaths in custody with murder, such officers typically faced lesser charges. Police conducted their own internal affairs investigations to determine whether deaths in custody were justified.
On January 6, a 23-year-old man detained since November 2020 for “disrupting public order” died in Chi Hoa Temporary Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City. Police attributed the death to suicide, but the man’s family reportedly found bruises on his body.
On September 25, Phan Van Lan died at the Ha Lam village police office, Dạ Huoai District, Lam Dong Province, three hours after responding to a summons for an alleged violation of COVID-19 mitigation restrictions. According to police Lan was drunk and aggressive when he reported to the police station. Although the cause of death has not been determined, Lan’s brother, Phan Van Thuan, witnessed the autopsy, which revealed heavy bruising. The Ministry of Public Security was investigating the case as of year’s end.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit torture, violence, coercion, corporal punishment, or any form of treatment harming the body and health, or the honor and dignity of persons detained or incarcerated. Nonetheless, suspects commonly reported mistreatment and torture by police or plainclothes security officials during arrest, interrogation, and detention.
Activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials assaulted political prisoners to extract confessions or used other means to induce written confessions, including instructing fellow prisoners to assault them or making promises of better treatment. Abusive treatment was not limited to activists or persons involved in politics. Human rights monitoring groups issued multiple reports of police using excessive force while on duty, and investigators allegedly torturing detainees.
On August 12, the head of the economic police and two other officers of District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, reportedly assaulted journalist Mai Quoc An at the police station. Police reportedly summoned An to discuss his work as the director of a social enterprise providing COVID-19 relief. Police beat An after he refused to sign meeting minutes prepared by police.
In December a family member of jailed land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong reported prison guards physically abused him while in pretrial confinement, “taking turns harshly beating [him] over all parts of his body, including his genitals.” The family member reported prison officials threatened to place Phuong in a cell with mental patients if he continued to refuse to confess to his alleged crime of “making, storing, or disseminating propaganda against the state.”
In October international media reported that, according to a lawyer associated with the case, jailed land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu was beaten badly by investigators following his June 2020 arrest; he sustained injuries to his kidney and was hospitalized.
Although impunity in the security forces was a significant problem, and police, prosecutors, and government oversight agencies seldom investigated specific reports of mistreatment, authorities did prosecute some police officers for abuse of authority. In July the Hanoi People’s Court sentenced police officers Pham Hai Dang, Pham Trinh Duc Anh, and Nguyen Tien Anh to 30, 24, and 20 months in jail respectively for abusing detainees in custody. On December 13, authorities arrested Captain Nguyen Doan Tu and detained him for four months, accusing him of using “corporal punishment” against a prisoner at a prison in Ham Tam District, Binh Thuan Province.
The Ministry of Public Security reported it trained police on citizens’ rights and human rights of detainees.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions varied substantially by prison and province. In most cases they were austere but generally not life threatening. Insufficient and unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to potable water, poor sanitation, and excessive heat during the summer remained serious problems.
Physical Conditions: Authorities generally held men and women separately, with some reported exceptions in local detention centers. Authorities generally held juveniles in an area separate from adults. The law allows children younger than age three to stay with imprisoned mothers in a separate area of the prison. In these cases the prisoners were allowed appropriate time for taking care of their children. By law pretrial detainees are to be held separately from convicted prisoners. Media and activists reported there were cases in which detainees were held in the same cells with convicted prisoners.
Prison officials failed to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence. On July 26, Tran Tan Thanh allegedly beat and kicked his fellow inmate Nguyen Quoc Tuan after they had a conflict during their labor session at My Phuoc Prison in Tien Giang Province. Tuan reportedly died a few hours after being taken to the prison’s emergency room.
Some former and serving prisoners and their families reported prisoners received insufficient, poor-quality food. Family members continued to make credible claims that prisoners received extra food or other preferential treatment by paying bribes to prison officials. Prisoners had access to basic health care, although obtaining necessary medicines was difficult because of poor prison care and the inability to see outside medical experts.
Some prison authorities refused to allow any items sent to prisoners from outside the prison system, including supplemental food and medication, citing COVID-19-related concerns. Authorities placed prisoners in solitary confinement for standard periods of three months, reportedly only after less rigorous punishments had been imposed. Family members of Trinh Ba Phuong reported that he was kept in solitary confinement in excess of three months.
On July 6, Ho Chi Minh City police confirmed a riot broke out inside Chi Hoa Temporary Detention Center, reportedly sparked by prisoner concerns regarding a COVID-19 outbreak at the prison following the July 3 death of a suspect in a drug case, reportedly from COVID-19.
Administration: According to the law, the National Assembly, people’s councils, and the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF) – an umbrella group that oversees the country’s government-sponsored social organizations – oversee the execution of criminal judgments. There was no active system of prison ombudsmen with whom prisoners could file complaints. The Ministry of Public Security reported that prisoners may file formal complaints with a prosecutor’s office. Since these complaints must first go through the same prison officials who were often the focus of the complaint, however, most observers considered this process flawed.
The law allows prisoners’ family members to visit for one to three hours per month and for prisoners to make up to four 10-minute phone calls per month. Authorities, however, generally limited prisoners to one family visit of no longer than an hour per month. Family members of prisoners reported prison authorities frequently limited political prisoners to two calls, each normally five to seven minutes in length, per month. The family of political prisoner Le Dinh Luong reported many of his calls were barely long enough for him to read a list of medications and necessities that he was requesting from the family. Detention officials monitored and censored calls, abruptly ending them if the conversations addressed negative reports concerning detention conditions. Family members were generally permitted to provide various items, including money, supplemental food, and bedding, to prisoners.
Authorities at many prisons cancelled all family visits during the year, citing COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Prisoner’s families reported that their requests for additional and longer calls to compensate for their inability to visit were generally refused by prison authorities.
While families of current prisoners reported improved prisoner access to religious texts such as the Bible, some family members of existing and former prisoners and lawyers continued to report some prison authorities restricted or hindered prisoners’ access to such publications despite the law providing for such access.
On April 14, Ho Chi Minh City police arrested former Thu Duc Prison guard Le Chi Thanh on charges of “resisting a law enforcement officer” in what international human rights observers asserted was retribution for exposing systemic corruption on his YouTube channel. Thanh, who was fired in July 2020, criticized what he called a culture of corruption within the prison system. On April 18, Thu Duc prison authorities also disciplined police captain Nguyen Doan Tu who worked in the same unit with Thanh and witnessed the behavior Thanh described online and in meetings with international organizations. Tu wrote on his Facebook page that he always wanted to tell the truth but was continuously bullied, disciplined, and isolated within his unit.
On October 4, Quang Nam Province police suspended Captain Tran Dinh following allegations on social media that he had assaulted a detainee with an electric baton. The case remained under investigation.
Independent Monitoring: The Ministry of Public Security, the government entity that manages prisons, did not allow access to international monitors. Local and regional International Committee of the Red Cross officials neither requested nor carried out prison visits during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution states a decision by a court or prosecutor is required for the arrest of any individual, except in the case of a “flagrant offense.” The law allows the government to arrest and detain persons “until the investigation finishes” for particularly serious crimes, including national security cases. Those detained for nonpolitical offenses may question the legality of their detention with the arresting authority, but there is no right for the detainee or a representative to challenge the lawfulness of an arrest before a court. There were numerous cases of authorities arresting or detaining activists or government critics contrary to the law or on spurious grounds. Authorities routinely subjected activists and suspected criminals to de facto house arrest without charge.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
By law police generally require a warrant issued by a prosecutor to arrest a suspect, although in some cases a decision from a court is required. The criminal code also allows police to “hold an individual” without a warrant in “urgent circumstances,” such as when evidence existed a person was preparing to commit a crime or when police caught a person in the act of committing a crime. Human rights lawyers shared the view that detention without warrants was a common practice. There were numerous instances where activists were taken into custody by plainclothes individuals without an arrest warrant.
In addition to actual arrest, lawyers and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that, in many cases, police officers “invited” individuals to present themselves at police stations without being given a clear reason. These individuals might be held for hours and questioned or requested to write or sign reports. Many such cases had nothing to do with political or sensitive circumstances.
The investigating agency, in most the cases police, may hold a suspect for 72 hours without an arrest warrant. They must notify the prosecutors within 12 hours of issuing the custody decision. The prosecutor must approve or disapprove the arrest within 12 hours of receiving notice from the investigating agency. The investigating agency may extend custody twice, each time for three days, with the approval of the prosecutors. Especially in politically motivated cases, these procedures were not applied consistently or strictly.
The law requires video or audio recording of interrogations during the investigation, prosecution, and sentencing phases of cases. If recording is not possible, interrogation is only allowed if the person being interrogated agrees. This requirement, however, was not evenly applied. In multiple criminal trials, such videos were used by authorities to manipulate the court and public perception of the suspect and the case, according to human rights activists. During her December trial, prodemocracy author and journalist Pham Doan Trang claimed documentation of her confession was made under duress and therefore should not be admissible as evidence.
By law the prosecutor must issue a decision to initiate a formal criminal investigation of a detainee and notify the accused or their legal representative within three days of arrest; otherwise, police must release the suspect. The law allows the prosecutor to request the court with jurisdiction over the case to grant two additional three-day extensions for a maximum of nine days’ detention before the pretrial investigation begins.
Although the criminal code sets time limits for detention while under investigation, including for “serious” and “particularly serious” crimes (for the latter, an individual may be held for 16 months), the law allows the prosecutor to detain an individual “until the investigation finishes” in cases of “particularly serious crimes,” including national security cases. Only after the pretrial investigation is completed are suspects formally charged.
While a suspect is detained during investigation, authorities may deny family visits; they routinely denied such visits for those arrested on national security charges or in other politically motivated cases.
The law allows for bail in the form of money or property as a measure to replace pretrial detention, but it was seldom granted.
The law requires authorities to inform persons held in custody, accused of a crime, or charged with a crime, of their legal rights, including the right to an attorney within three days of arrest. By law the government is required to assign a lawyer for a criminal defendant if the defendant or their lawful representative does not seek the assistance of defense counsel in cases where the defendant is charged with offenses punishable by death, is a minor or person with physical disabilities, or is deemed mentally incompetent. The government may also provide lawyers for certain cases, including cases against persons deemed to have made significant contributions to the country, members of households below or close to the poverty line, or members of ethnic minorities in remote and impoverished areas. The government may also provide lawyers in certain cases where defendants or their family include victims of agent orange, elderly or persons with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, survivors of trafficking in persons, or HIV-infected persons.
Although the law affords detainees access to counsel from the time of detention, authorities used bureaucratic delays to deny timely access to legal counsel. In politically sensitive national security cases, the government routinely prohibited defense lawyers’ access to their clients until after officials completed their investigations and formally charged the suspect with a crime. Activists such as Pham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu, and Nguyen Tuong Thuy were not allowed to meet their lawyers during their investigations. At times authorities only permitted attorneys access to their clients or the evidence against them immediately before the case went to trial, denying them adequate time to prepare a defense. For example, Ninh Binh authorities did not allow blogger Tran Quoc Khanh to meet his lawyer until one day before the trial. At this meeting Khanh refused to be represented by the lawyer (some reported he was coerced into doing this) and thus had no lawyer at his trial.
Detainees have an undefined right to notify family members of their arrest. Although police generally informed families of detainees’ whereabouts, the Ministry of Public Security generally held bloggers, activists, and others suspected of political or national security offenses incommunicado.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly for political activists and individuals protesting land seizures or other injustices, remained a serious problem. Some activists also reported that authorities used routine police interrogations to obtain incriminating information concerning other human rights activists.
Authorities subjected many religious and political activists to varying degrees of arbitrary detention in their residences, in vehicles, at local police stations, at “social protection centers,” or at local government offices. Such detentions were most common around and during events that were likely to draw significant public attention.
During the August visit of a foreign dignitary, prominent activists in Hanoi reported that they were watched closely by security forces. These activists said they believed the officials would prevent them if they tried to leave their residences. Similarly in January activists estimated thousands of individuals across the country were watched closely before and during the National Party Congress.
In early October an activist was taken by force to a local police station in Cao Bang without a warrant by plainclothes officials who searched her belongings and questioned her for hours. She was only released late that evening after her family threatened to make the incident public.
Pretrial Detention: The allowable time for temporary detention during an investigation varies from three to 16 months, depending on the offense. There were no standard legal or administrative requirements as to when suspects must be brought before a judicial officer. Depending on the seriousness and nature of the offenses, these time limits vary. In cases of particularly serious crimes, including national security cases, the law allows detention “until the completion of the investigation.”
Similarly the allowable time for adjudication of the police investigation by prosecutors varies between 45 and 120 days. By law a trial must begin within 30 days of the adjudication of charges. The total time for pretrial detention is the sum of all these periods; the maximum pretrial detention is nominally 21 months in cases of “especially serious offenses.” These limits were exceeded with impunity, and police and prosecutors used lengthy pretrial detention to punish or pressure human rights defenders to confess to crimes, activists said. By law authorities must provide justification for detention beyond the initial four months, but court officials ignored the failure of police or prosecutors to comply with such laws when adjudicating cases.
Lengthy pretrial detention was not limited to activists. State-run media shared a People’s Supreme Court report in September citing COVID-19 for continuing delays across the criminal justice system, although delays were common before the pandemic. According to the report, during the 10-month period ending in July the court system processed approximately 80 percent of the 77,450 criminal cases it received.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There is no such right under law. Detained individuals may request that the agency responsible review the decision. If an arrest or detention is deemed improper by the agency, the individual may be eligible for compensation.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary was effectively under the control of the CPV. There were credible reports political influence, endemic corruption, bribery, and inefficiency strongly distorted the judicial system. For example in May, a Kon Tum City judge was arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes.
Most, if not all, judges were members of the CPV and were screened by the CPV and local officials during their selection process to determine their suitability for the bench. Judges are reappointed every five years, following reviews of their conduct by party officials. The party’s authority was particularly notable in high-profile cases and when authorities charged a person with corruption, challenging or harming the party or state, or both. Defense lawyers routinely complained that, in many cases, it appeared judges determined the guilt of defendants prior to the trial.
There continued to be credible reports that authorities pressured defense lawyers not to take religious or democracy activists as clients and questioned their motivations for doing so. Authorities also restricted, harassed, arrested, and disbarred human rights attorneys who represented political activists. The law required attorneys to violate attorney-client privilege in national security cases or other serious crimes.
While the constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, this right was not evenly enforced. The law states that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Defendants’ right to prompt, detailed information concerning the charges against them was rarely respected. Defendants’ right to a timely trial was ignored with impunity, and although trials generally were open to the public, in sensitive cases judges closed trials or strictly limited attendance.
Authorities generally upheld the right of defendants to be present at their trial. The court sometimes denied suspects the right to their own choice of attorney and assigned one. The criminal code permits defendants to be seated adjacent to their defense attorney, although this was not standard practice. Defendants have the right to communicate with a lawyer if they are on trial for a criminal charge that could result in a 15-year or longer sentence, including capital cases, although they often could not exercise this right.
Although the defense has the right to cross-examine witnesses, there were multiple instances in which neither defendants nor their lawyers knew which prosecution witnesses would be called, nor were they allowed to cross-examine those witnesses or otherwise challenge witness statements. In political trials neither defendants nor their attorneys were allowed to examine or review evidence relied upon by the prosecution. A defendant has the right to present a defense, but the law does not expressly state the defendant has the right to call witnesses. Judges presiding over politically sensitive trials generally did not permit defense lawyers and defendants to exercise their legal rights.
The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings is Vietnamese, but the state provides interpretation if participants in a criminal procedure use another spoken or written language. The law does not specify whether such services are free of charge.
While there were some elements of the adversarial system in court procedures, overall the system remained inquisitorial, with the judge playing the primary role of asking questions and ascertaining facts in a trial. In most trials defense attorneys were given time to address the court and question their clients, but they could not call witnesses or examine prosecutors’ evidence. In other trials involving individuals charged under national security articles, judges occasionally silenced defense lawyers who were making arguments on behalf of their clients. Convicted persons have the right to at least one appeal.
At the March appeal hearing for six of the original 29 Dong Tam commune residents involved in a land dispute, the judge upheld all charges and the original convictions, which stemmed from a January 2020 clash with police. The judge rejected defense attorneys’ claims that the court did not grant them sufficient access to their clients prior to and during the original trial and prevented them from accessing state evidence, thereby hampering their efforts to mount a viable defense.
On May 5, the Provincial People’s Court in Hoa Binh sentenced Can Thi Theu and one of her sons, Trinh Ba Tu, to eight years in prison and three years of probation each on charges of “conducting antistate propaganda.” According to one of the lawyers defending Theu and Tu, his clients were not allowed to access their case files to prepare for defending themselves. The trial panel also refused his clients’ request to summon witnesses.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
NGOs estimated that as of August, authorities held between 130 and 288 persons for political reasons. According to media, from January 1 to November 9, authorities detained 29 and convicted 27 persons who were exercising internationally recognized human rights, such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Most of these arrests and convictions were linked to online blogging, and defendants were charged with “making, storing, spreading, or propagating information, materials, or items” for the purpose of “opposing” the state and “abusing democratic freedom.”
On January 5, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City found three members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam guilty of propaganda against the state and sentenced them to prison. Pham Chi Dung, founder and president of the association, was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” His colleagues, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan, each received an 11-year sentence for what the court described as “a dangerous crime that threatened national security and public order.”
According to NGO reporting, authorities often charged activists with crimes unrelated to their activism as a means of silencing them. For example, in June and July, the Police Investigation Agency of Hanoi Public Security arrested Dang Hoang Bach and Mai Phan Loi for tax evasion. Activists alleged Bach and Loi’s arrests were linked to their criticism of the government’s role in a number of environmental matters, particularly related to thermal power plant projects in the central part of the country and to Loi’s advocacy for press freedom.
Prison officials often held political prisoners in small groups separate from the general inmate population and treated them differently. In many cases political prisoners’ daily schedules were different from those of the general inmate population, and they were not afforded the opportunity to leave their cells for work or interaction with the general prison population. Some political prisoners enjoyed better material conditions but were subject to more psychological harassment. In other cases political prisoners were subject to harassment by prison authorities and other inmates, the latter sometimes at the instigation of officials. Officials often subjected political prisoners to more extended periods of solitary confinement than the three months given to other prisoners.
In some cases rations appeared to be more limited for political prisoners than others. Former political prisoners reported they received only two small bowls of rice and vegetables daily, often mixed with foreign matter such as insects or stones. Some complained that the prisoners who were on a diet for medical reasons could not get enough suitable food. Family members of many imprisoned activists who were or became ill claimed medical treatment was inadequate and resulted in long-term health complications.
Political prisoners and their family members reported that prison authorities at times revoked, reduced, denied, or delayed visitation rights and did not allow visitors to provide items to family members. Prison authorities often held political prisoners far from their homes, making family visits difficult, and routinely did not inform family members of prison transfers. In April Nguyen Tuong Thuy was transferred to An Phuoc Detention Center in Binh Duong Province, a facility farther from his Hanoi-based family but with comparatively better conditions than at his previous prison in the same province.
Courts continued to hand down severe sentences to the most prominent activists or those linked to overseas groups. On August 25, a court in Phu Yen Province sentenced Ngo Cong Tru to 10 years in prison, having convicted him of “engaging in activities to overthrow the people’s administration.” According to the official indictment, Tru was alleged to be a member of the Provisional National Government of Vietnam, an overseas group that the Ministry of Public Security designated a terrorist organization in 2018. Authorities accused Tru of using his social media account to recruit members for the banned organization, and of defaming the country’s leaders. On December 14, Pham Doan Trang, an activist and blogger, was sentenced to nine years in prison for disseminating “antistate propaganda.”
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: There were reports of authorities harassing exiled individuals and their families.
In February the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international NGO, reported that the cyberespionage group known as OceanLotus, or APT32, continued to infringe on the privacy rights of citizens through spearfishing malware attacks targeting overseas Vietnamese journalists and human rights defenders, media organizations, and Catholic websites. The cybersecurity company Volexity determined the source of the attacks was in Vietnam but could not confirm a link between APT32 and the government.
Bilateral Pressure: Human rights groups reported the government pressured Cambodia and Thailand to deny refugee or temporary asylum-seeker status to members of ethnoreligious minorities from the Central and Northwest Highlands, including Christian H’mong, seeking refugee status as victims of oppression, and to return them to Vietnam. The government claimed these individuals were illegal migrants who left the country in pursuit of economic opportunities.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, home, or correspondence, but the government did not consistently protect these rights and at times violated them.
By law security forces need warrants to enter homes forcibly, but Ministry of Public Security officers regularly entered or surveilled homes, particularly of activists, without legal authority. They often intimidated residents with threats of repercussions for failure to allow entry.
Without legal warrants authorities regularly opened and censored targeted private mail; confiscated packages and letters; and monitored telephone conversations, email, text messages, blogs, and fax transmissions. The government cut telephone lines and interrupted the cellphone and internet service of several political activists and their family members.
There were many reports of local police without warrants entering residences of citizens who reportedly did not comply with pandemic-related restrictions, taking them to quarantine facilities. For example on September 28, police and local officers broke into the house of Hoang Thi Phuong Lan in Vinh Phu Commune, Thuan An City, Binh Duong Province and dragged her out of her apartment for a COVID-19 test, reportedly without a warrant. Local authorities apologized for their aggressive actions but still fined Lan for violating COVID-19 mitigation regulations.
The Ministry of Public Security maintained a system of household registration and block wardens to monitor unlawful activity. While this system was less intrusive than in the past, the ministry closely monitored individuals engaged in or suspected of engaging in unauthorized political activities.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media; however, the government did not respect these rights, and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government also continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions in the law to restrict freedom of expression. Such provisions establish crimes such as “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people,” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. The law also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals.”
Freedom of Expression: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders or the party, promoted political pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters, such as human rights, religious freedom, or sovereignty disputes with China.
Representatives from state-run organizations and progovernment groups visited activists’ residences and attempted to propagandize or intimidate them into supporting government policies, according to social media and activists’ reports. Family members of activists also reported numerous incidents of physical harassment, intimidation, and questioning by Ministry of Public Security officials.
On April 23, a court in Phu Yen Province sentenced Tran Thi Tuyet Dieu to eight years in prison for spreading “antistate propaganda.” According to the indictment she posted 25 articles and nine videos on Facebook and YouTube starting in 2019 until April 2020 “with content opposing the State of the Communist Republic of Vietnam.” Dieu was a former reporter at the province’s official newspaper Phu Yen.
On September 2, Ho Chi Minh City police and the Department of Information and Communications fined Facebook user Nguyen Thi Thuy Duong five million dong ($220) for “sharing untruthful content” by criticizing the government’s handling of COVID-19. According to media reports, Duong posted a video on July 22 and claimed that Binh Trung Dong Ward did not provide sufficient food, aid, and care for individuals under lockdown.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass media organizations exercised legal authority over all print, broadcast, online, and electronic media, primarily through the Ministry of Information and Communications under the overall guidance of the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission. The law requires editors in chief to be CPV members; many outlets applied this to additional managers as well.
Many nongovernmental entities, however, produced and distributed publications by subcontracting, joint publishing, or buying permits from government or other public publishing entities. State-run media reported private entities produced more than 90 percent of all publications in the country, although outright private ownership or operation of any media outlet or publishing house was prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
Authorities further consolidated government control over media outlets, including requiring them to be affiliated with a government body. In Ho Chi Minh City, the party committee assumed the role of the governing agency for two major newspapers, Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborers) and Phu Nu (Women), previously under the management of the Labor Federation and the Women’s Union respectively. Similarly the People’s Committee took over four popular city-based publications, Phap Luat (Law), Du Lich (Tourism), Giao Duc (Education) and Kinh Te Saigon (Saigon Economic Times), previously managed by the committee’s departments. The magazine Doanh Nhan Saigon (Saigon Entrepreneurs) was also transferred to the People’s Committee from the Ho Chi Minh City Business Association.
On June 24, Hanoi police arrested Mai Phan Loi and Bach Hung Duong, the chairman and director of the nongovernmental Media and Education Center; Dang Dinh Bach, director of the NGO Law and Policy of Sustainable Development; and at least two other persons, one of them an accountant and director at the Media and Education Center, for tax evasion. Loi produced and shared many critical programs and reports concerning a variety of topics, notably the environment, on social media.
On June 30, police arrested Dung Le Van (also known as Dung Vova), a freelance journalist who runs Chan Hung Nuoc Viet, a Facebook and YouTube-based outlet that covers politics, social topics, and corruption, according to news reports. Authorities issued a warrant for Dung’s arrest in late May for purportedly violating provisions of the penal code that bar “making, storing, distributing or spreading” news or information against the state.
In a closed trial on July 9, a Hanoi court sentenced independent journalist Pham Chi Thanh to six years and six months in jail for “creating, storing and disseminating information against the state.” Thanh was famous for criticizing and making fun of many high-ranking communist party and state officials on his Facebook page Ba Dam Xoe (Lady Liberty) and in other social media. The conviction reportedly was mostly for his book published in late 2019 criticizing Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
On October 28, a court in Can Tho sentenced five members of anticorruption group Bao Sach (Clean Journalism) to more than 14 years’ imprisonment in total on charge of “abusing democratic freedoms.” The indictment accused Truong Chau Huu Danh, Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao, Nguyen Thanh Nha, Doan Kien Giang, and Le The Thang of publishing 47 articles on the Bao Sach Facebook page with “negative and biased information.” By law the government may fine journalists and newspapers for failing to cite their sources of information or for using “documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.”
Online news site Dan Tri was fined for inaccurately reporting that a student had died of COVID-19 when the student was still being treated. Dan Tri was not the sole outlet to publish the information but was the only one fined because it was the first to publish the story. Journalists interpreted the sanctions as an attempt to discourage local media outlets from publishing stories critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic or even stories on the pandemic deemed too negative.
The law allows the government to punish publishers if they publish “untruthful information” in the fields of statistics; atomic energy; management of prices, charges, fees, and invoices; education; civil aviation; vocational training; hydrometeorology; cartography; and health.
The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country accessed foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.
The government permitted journalists employed by foreign-based media outlets to operate under significant restrictions. Foreign journalists required formal permission to travel outside Hanoi for reporting. The law also requires “live” foreign television programming to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring.
Viewers reported obstruction of coverage of various commentaries, documentaries, and movies on human rights incidents in the country, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Soviet era, or reports involving trade tensions. The information ministry may revoke the licenses of foreign publishers; foreign publishers must renew their licenses annually.
The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring journalists’ meetings and communications.
Violence and Harassment: Independent journalists faced restrictions on freedom of movement, other forms of harassment, and physical attacks, if they reported on sensitive topics.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministries of Information and Communications, Public Security, National Defense and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly with media to dictate or censor a story.
Propaganda officials forced editors of major media outlets to meet with them regularly to discuss what topics were off-limits for reporting. More often pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest, enabled the party and government to control media content. The government punished journalists for failing to self-censor, including by revoking journalists’ press credentials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense, and the laws were enforced.
On March 31, a court in Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands sentenced Vu Tien Chi to 10 years in prison. The court alleged Chi shared nearly 340 “antistate” articles and conducted 181 social media livestreams in which he “defamed senior communist leaders, including President Ho Chi Minh.” On the same day, a court in Khanh Hoa sentenced Nguyen Thi Cam Thuy to nine years, Ngo Thi Ha Phuong to seven years, and Le Viet Hoa to five years in prison. Thuy, a former schoolteacher fired for expressing “antistate” political opinions, was accused of burning the national flag and cutting up pictures of senior leaders including Ho Chi Minh on her Facebook page.
National Security: The law allows significant fines to be levied against journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests or for disseminating information considered to distort history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases these “violations” may lead to criminal proceedings. No such cases were reported, although editors noted that publications and journalists must be careful of national security laws, contributing to self-censorship.
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and ordered journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although permitted by the constitution, the government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws and regulations require permits for group gatherings, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive matters appeared to require permits. The government generally did not permit any demonstrations that could be perceived as political. The law permits security forces to detain individuals gathering or protesting outside of courthouses during trials. Persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference so long as the gathering was not perceived as political or a threat to the state.
Police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those demonstrating against the government.
Freedom of Association
The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government severely restricted the establishment of associations involved in what the government considered “sensitive” fields such as political, religious, and labor topics. The country’s legal and regulatory framework includes mechanisms particularly aimed at restricting the freedom of NGOs, including religious organizations, to organize and act. The government generally prohibited the establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF.
Laws and regulations governing NGOs restrict their ability to engage in policy advocacy or conduct research outside of state-sanctioned topics and prohibit organizations focused on social science and technology from operating in fields such as economic policy, public policy, political matters, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also did not permit NGOs generally to publicly advocate specific policy positions.
The law requires religious groups to register with authorities and to obtain official approval of their activities. Unregistered religious groups such as the Vietnam Baptist Convention, independent Pentecostal groups, independent Cao Dai groups, Pure Hoa Hao, and the Evangelical Church of Christ reported government interference.
According to some recognized groups and others attempting to register, implementation of the law varied from province to province. Some registered organizations, including governance, women’s rights, and environment-focused NGOs, reported increased scrutiny of their activities.
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government regularly imposed limits on the movement of individuals, especially those convicted under national security or related charges or outspoken critics of the government.
In-country Movement: Authorities restricted the movements of several political activists on probation or under house arrest, along with others not facing such legal restrictions. Authorities also continued to monitor and selectively restrict the movement of prominent activists and religious leaders. Authorities continued to prevent activists from leaving their houses during events that might draw public attention. Several activists reported authorities had confiscated their national identification cards, preventing them from traveling domestically by air or conducting routine administrative matters.
Government restrictions required citizens and resident foreigners to obtain a permit to visit border areas, defense facilities, industrial zones involved in national defense, areas of “national strategic storage,” and “works of extreme importance for political, economic, cultural, and social purposes.”
Citizens (or their hosts) must register with local police when staying overnight in any location outside their own homes. Foreign passport holders must also register to stay in private homes, although there were no known cases of local authorities refusing to allow foreign visitors to stay with friends or family.
Religious leaders were required to specify geographic areas where they were active. Some reported that authorities told them that preaching outside the approved areas was illegal, although enforcement was inconsistent.
Authorities did not strictly enforce residency laws for the general population, and migration from rural areas to cities continued unabated. Moving without permission, however, hampered persons from obtaining legal residence permits, public education, and health-care benefits.
Foreign Travel: Prospective emigrants occasionally encountered difficulties obtaining a passport or exit permission, and authorities regularly confiscated passports of activists and government critics, at times indefinitely. The law allows authorities to postpone the departure of any person on various broad grounds, including for national security and defense. There were multiple reports of individuals crossing the land borders with Laos or Cambodia illegally because they were unable to obtain passports or exit permission; in some cases this included persons wanted for crimes, political activities, or activism.
The Ministry of Public Security continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against certain activists and religious leaders. Authorities banned and prevented dozens of individuals from traveling overseas, withheld their passports on vague charges, or refused to issue passports to certain activists or religious leaders without clear explanation. Activists believed they were not authorized to travel abroad to reduce their opportunities to speak out against the government. Authorities also refused to issue passports to the family members of certain activists.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations regarding treatment of refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
g. Stateless Persons
According to 2020 statistics from UNHCR, there were 32,890 recognized stateless persons and persons of undetermined nationality in the country. This was a substantial increase from the estimated 11,000 stateless persons acknowledged in 2016, reflecting increased government efforts to identify such persons. The bulk of this population were ethnic H’mong living in border areas, but it also included a number of women who lost their citizenship after marrying a foreigner but then lost their foreign citizenship, primarily because of divorce.
In March a diplomat reported local authorities in Subdivision 179, Dam Rong District, Lam Dong Province continued to refuse to issue identity and household residency documents to members of the H’mong Christian community living in the area. Without identity documents and residency cards, the residents could not access public health care or educational resources and faced challenges securing legal employment. Local authorities would only issue identity and residency documents to families that agreed to purchase a home in areas zoned for residency outside the “forest land,” which includes Subdivision 179.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Citizens could not choose their government through free and fair elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by a secret ballot that guaranteed free expression and the will of the people. Although the constitution provides the ability to elect representatives to the National Assembly, people’s councils, and other state agencies directly, constitutional and legal provisions established a monopoly on political power for the CPV, and the CPV oversaw all elections.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The May 23 National Assembly elections allowed limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates but were neither free nor fair, and the government did not allow NGO monitoring. The CPV’s Fatherland Front chose and vetted all candidates through an opaque, multistage process. CPV candidates won 485 of the 499 seats. The remaining 14 were non-CPV candidates unaffiliated with any party; nine of the 14 were self-nominated. There were no candidates from a party other than the CPV.
According to the government, 99 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the May 23 election, a figure activists and international observers considered improbably high. Voters may cast ballots by proxy, and officials charged local authorities with ensuring that all eligible voters cast ballots by organizing group voting and verifying that all voters within their jurisdiction had voted.
The law allows citizens to “self-nominate” as National Assembly candidates and submit applications for the VFF election-vetting process. A total of 74 non-CPV, self-nominated candidates received VFF approval and ran in the May 23 National Assembly elections, down from 97 in the 2016 election. The independent candidates consisted of legal reformers, journalists, academics, activists, and human rights defenders, and included the country’s first openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) candidate, who ran unsuccessfully in Hanoi. In contrast to the party’s candidates, these candidates actively used Facebook and social media to advertise their policy platforms.
On March 9, Ninh Binh police arrested Tran Quoc Khanh on a charge of “conducting antistate propaganda.” Khanh previously announced through social media his intention to run for a seat in the National Assembly as an independent candidate. Before this arrest local police questioned Khanh on multiple occasions regarding his blogging, his announced candidacy for the National Assembly, and his application to a prodemocracy civil society organization called Democracy Association.
On March 25, Hanoi police arrested prospective self-nominated National Assembly candidate Le Trong Hung and charged him with “conducting antistate propaganda.” At the time of his arrest, Hung had submitted preliminary paperwork to run in the May elections but had not yet been formally screened by the VFF. Hung was a long-time human rights advocate who focused his civil rights advocacy on social injustice by distributing copies of the country’s constitution. He was also critical of many incumbent legislators and other state and party leaders on his Facebook page.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Political opposition movements and other political parties are illegal. Although the constitution states that “all Party organizations and members of the CPV operate within the framework of the constitution and the laws,” the CPV politburo in fact functioned as the supreme national decision-making body, although technically it reported to the CPV Central Committee.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law sets a target of 35 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly and provincial people’s councils to be women and 18 percent to be from minority groups. The 151 women in the National Assembly comprise 30 percent of the body; the 89 ethnic minority delegates comprise 18 percent of the assembly.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government did not permit independent, local human rights organizations to form or operate, nor did it tolerate attempts by organizations or individuals to criticize its human rights practices publicly. Some activists reported receiving death threats from plainclothes individuals they believed were associated with the government. Authorities often asserted that human rights and democracy advocacy were acts against the Communist Party and state.
On July 16, police and security officers in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak detained at least 21 individuals who had reportedly participated in civil society training organized by a human rights NGO. The detained individuals were affiliated with two unregistered Protestant churches long targeted by authorities. One detainee said that approximately 30 police arrived at his house in personal protective equipment masquerading as health authorities. At least one victim reported that police officers beat him during interrogations and threatened to kill him for refusing to sign a confession. Another victim reported police shackled her ankles while detaining her and her infant. Interrogators reportedly questioned detainees on the civil society training; on their links to Pastor A Ga; their ties to diaspora Vietnamese; and meetings with foreign diplomats. Interrogators reportedly warned victims they were breaking the law by associating with unregistered churches, taking civil society training, researching the Law on Belief and Religion, and contacting any individuals outside the country. Authorities released all detainees within three days without charge.