Last week, a United Nations Rights Tribunal condemned the Vietnamese government for the arbitrary detention of Le Quoc Quan, a prominent lawyer, blogger, and human rights activist who has been imprisoned since December 27, 2012. EFF submitted a petition in March of this year with 11 other advocacy groups calling on the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to determine that Le Quoc Quan’s imprisonment violates international legal standards. This UN condemnation comes at a critical moment as the Communist Vietnamese government’s crackdown on activists, bloggers, and dissidents has been on the rise in 2012 and 2013.
Le Quoc Quan’s 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. Le Quoc Quan was arrested for tax evasion, charges that are widely regarded as a baseless pretext for silencing his powerful, popular blog-writings that are critical of human rights violations by the Vietnamese government. This wasn’t the first time Vietnam has used tax evasion charges to jail and rein in bloggers; the same charges were used by the Vietnamese government to imprison popular, political blogger Nguyen Van Hai in 2008.
Since being disbarred in 2007 on suspicion of engaging in “activities to overthrow the regime”, Quan has continued his human rights advocacy and maintained a very popular blog covering issues ignored by the state run media. His arrest came nine days after publishing an article with the BBC discussing proposed amendments to Vietnam’s constitution entitled, “Constitution of a contract for electricity and water service?” The piece is critical of article 4 in Vietnam’s constitution that secures the Communist Party as the “vanguard” of the people of Vietnam, quashing any attempt at political pluralism in the country.
In Vietnam media is largely controlled by the state, and foreign TV broadcasts air on a 30-mintue delay in order to give state censors time to edit content. It’s estimated that the Vietnamese government has arrested at least 46 activists and bloggers convicted of anti-state activity in 2013. What’s more, in September the country passed a new law making it illegal to share news links on social media.
The UN tribunal found that Le Quoc Quan’s detention may be “the result of his peaceful exercise of the rights and freedoms guaranteed under international human rights law” and “related to his blog articles on civil and political rights.” Quan was held incommunicado for the first two months following his arrest and spent fifteen days on a hunger strike while detained.
In October of 2013 Le Quoc Quan finally had a trial and was sentenced to 30 months in prison for alleged tax fraud. These charges may have serious speech-chilling consequences for others in Vietnam who wish to speak out against government policies. The UN Working Group agrees. In their condemnation, the tribunal added, “given Mr. Quan’s history as a human rights defender and blogger, the real purpose of the detention and prosecution might eventually be to punish him for exercising his right [to freedom of expression] and to deter others from doing so.” The Working Group further recommended that Le Quoc Quan be compensated for his time in prison.
With international pressure mounting, rights advocates can now confirm that the detention of Le Quoc Quan is a clear violation international human rights standards. What’s more, this year Vietnam was elected into the United Nations Human Rights Council, meaning the communist country is obliged to uphold UNHCR core values and UN requests. Vietnamese bloggers responded quickly to their country’s inclusion to the UN Human Rights Council, creating a Network of Vietnamese Bloggers (NVB) to pressure the country to stop prosecuting citizens exercising their right to free expression. International organizations that petitioned for the UN rights tribunal, including EFF, Article 19, and Reporters without Borders, likewise demand for the immediate release of Le Quoc Quan and call on the Vietnamese government to comply with the decision made by the United Nations Working Group. EFF applauds the decision made by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. We will continue to follow the case closely.