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There are at least 97 prisoners of conscience languishing in jails in Vietnam, many of whom are kept incommunicado in squalid conditions and routinely subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, new research by Amnesty International reveals today.

The organization is publishing the list on the day before six activists – including five people from the Brotherhood for Democracy group – are facing an unfair trial on trumped-up charges of “attempting to overthrow the people’s government.” They all risk lengthy jail sentences.

“Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s most prolific jailers of peaceful activists – a shameful title no one should aspire to. The 97 prisoners of conscience that we are aware of in the country are all brave women and men who have been robbed of their freedom for nothing but promoting human rights,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“What is worse is that this number is likely an underestimation. It is impossible to know the real figure, given the shroud of secrecy the Vietnamese authorities operate under.”

The list of 97 prisoners of conscience includes lawyers, bloggers, human rights defenders, environmental activists and pro-democracy campaigners – all of whom have only resorted to peaceful means. Many have been handed lengthy jail sentences after farcical trials in Vietnam’s judiciary.

In 2017, Vietnamese authorities intensified a crackdown on real or perceived dissidents, and sought to tighten control of the internet by targeting bloggers and social media users. The well-known blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, better known as Mẹ Nấm (Mother Mushroom), was sentenced to 10-years in jail in June 2017 for “conducting propaganda”, and her health has been deteriorating rapidly in recent months as she is being denied adequate medical care in prison.

Prisoners of conscience face deplorable conditions behind bars, where they are often held in solitary confinement and are denied access to lawyers and family members. Torture in Vietnamese prisons is rife – Amnesty International has documented how prisoners are beaten with sticks, rubber tubes, punches and kicks; electrocuted; and subjected to stress positions.

Trial of six activists

Tomorrow, on 5 April 2018, another six people face trial in Hanoi City for their peaceful activism. They include five members of the unregistered Brotherhood for Democracy group as well as the activist Nguyen Bac Truyen.

All are accused of “subversion” because of activities that have included peaceful political activism, urging international organizations to raise human rights issues in Vietnam and providing legal support to farmers and workers. If convicted, they could face a life sentence or the death penalty.

“The relentless crackdown on dissent in Vietnam must end now. Authorities should start by immediately dropping the ludicrous charges against the six activists facing trial tomorrow and set them free without conditions,” said James Gomez. “This should be immediately followed by the unconditional release of all 97 prisoners of conscience, and the repeal of all laws that criminalize peaceful dissent.”

“Unless the Vietnamese government changes course and ends all unlawful practices aimed at jailing and harassing peaceful opponents, it is only a matter of time before the list of prisoners of conscience will grow even longer. Vietnam must immediately release everyone who has been jailed for nothing but peacefully speaking their minds, and take their obligation to respect human rights for everyone seriously.”

Background

Over 2017 and the first quarter of 2018, Amnesty International has compiled information on 97 known prisoners of conscience, of which 88 are male and nine are female. This constitutes a total increase from previous years despite some releases due to completed sentences.

Authorities primarily targeted human rights defenders, religious followers and peaceful environmental, social and political activists – including individuals expressing themselves online. These individuals have been targeted by the state either for organizing protests in criticism of the Vietnamese authorities or for disseminating information alternative to that promoted by the state. Amongst these prisoners of conscience, 40 are activists – political, social and environmental – and 57 are religious followers, of which 37 are from indigenous people’s groups. Of individuals with known ages, two are under 25 years, 75 between the ages of 25 to 64 years, with 18 who are 65 years and above.