MARCH 15, 2013 | BY EVA GALPERIN – the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – On 27 December 2012 prominent Vietnamese activist and blogger Le Quoc Quan was arbitrarily arrested and detained by local authorities while taking his daughter to school. The arrest was the culmination of years of constant surveillance and harassment over his extensive writing on civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom for the BBC, online newspapers, and on his blog.
As a lawyer, Quan represented many victims of human rights violations, but was disbarred in 2007 on suspicion of engaging in “activities to overthrow the regime.” Despite these threats, he continued with his human rights advocacy and as a result he has been arrested several times since. In August 2012, he was hospitalized after being severely beaten near his home by unknown assailants—an assault which has not been investigated by Vietnamese authorities.
Since his latest arrest, Quan has been held incommunicado in detention at Hoa Lo No. 1 Prison, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Viet Nam, and has had access to counsel only twice. No trial date has been set, and reports of a 15-day hunger strike, which has left Quan weak, raise concerns about the state of his health.
Quan’s arrest is part of the Communist Vietnamese government’s ongoing crackdown on activists, dissidents, and bloggers. Dozens of high profile figures have been arrested and detained since late 2011. In January 2013, in the largest case of its kind, 17 bloggers were put on trial at once, charged under Article 79 (“activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s government”) of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The allegations included: attending workshops on digital security; writing and linking to blog posts that are critical of the Communist Vietnamese government; calling for peaceful protests and political pluralism; and association with the Vietnam Reform Party (Viet Tan). After a two-day trial, a court in the city of Vinh convicted all 14 of the defendants that appeared in court. Thirteen of the activists and bloggers were sentenced to serve prison terms ranging individually from 3 to 13 years. One defendant (Nguyen Dang Vinh Phuc) was given a three-year conditionally suspended sentence, making him easily vulnerable to re-arrest. Three of the accused activists—Nguyen Xuan Kim, Thai Van Tu, and Le Sy—fled the country prior to trial and the Ministry of Public Security has issued a warrant for their arrest.
Quan’s arrest warrant suggests that he has been detained under Article 161 of the 1999 Penal Code concerning tax evasion. Charges such as “tax evasion” and “fax fraud” are often used by the Vietnamese government to silence critics. One of the founding members of the Free Journalists Network in Viet Nam, Nguyen Van Hai (also known as Dieu Cay), was arrested in 2008 and charged with tax fraud, widely seen as a baseless pretext to punish him for blog posts critical of Vietnam’s accommodationist policies to its northern neighbor, China, and his political activities. He finished his prison term in October 2010, but was immediately rearrested on charges of “conducting propaganda” against the State.
EFF has joined to a broad coalition of human rights organizations, including The Media Legal Defence Initiative, Reporters Without Borders, and Article 19, to request that the United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, human rights defenders and freedom of association conduct an urgent intervention with the Vietnamese authorities on behalf of Le Quoc Quan. In a detailed petition, we argue that Le Quoc Quan is being persecuted for his legitimate blogging and human rights advocacy, in violation of his rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association and that Vietnam is in blatant violation of the principles contained in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Additionally, we have sent a parallel petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, asking it to formally declare that Le Quoc Quan’s detention is arbitrary and demand his immediate release.
In a letter written shortly before his arrest, Quan wrote:
I strongly believe that the day will come when we will live in a free and truly democratic society. A day when all Vietnamese people can express their views openly, with the rights to seek and pursue our happiness and success on this beloved homeland, Vietnam.
These are not opinions that should land anyone in jail. We hope that the UN Special Rapporteurs and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will act swiftly to add their voices to chorus denouncing this injustice and calling for Le Quoc Quan’s release.