Australia urged to press Vietnam on rights abuses

Watchdog says move should include doing more to help an aged imprisoned Australian
Australia urged to press Vietnam on rights abuses

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison inspects a guard of honor with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on Aug. 23. (Photo by Nhac Nguyen/AFP)

Human Rights Watch has called on Australia to use a bilateral dialogue with Vietnam to press for the immediate release from prison of one of its citizens.

Pro-democracy activist Chau Van Kham, aged 70, has been told that he will not be allowed to have a defense lawyer until investigations are completed into allegations he was involved in anti-government activities.

He was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City in January for allegedly meeting with a member of the banned Brotherhood for Democracy group, Human Rights Watch reported.

His family has described as "ludicrous" suggestions by Vietnamese authorities that he is a terrorist who was seeking to overthrow the government.

"Australia should be publicly calling for the immediate release of Chau Van Kham, an Australian citizen, and all other political prisoners who have been unjustly jailed in Vietnam," said Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch's Australian director.

She added that Australia should push communist Vietnam to change its current rights-violating criminal code to allow detainees prompt access to legal counsel as required under international law.

The annual human rights dialogue is scheduled to be held in Australian capital Canberra on Aug. 29.

Australia has in recent years set out to deepen links with Vietnam, including through a 2018 strategic partnership, in what many regard as efforts coordinated with the United States to contain Chinese regional dominance and aggression.

But this is being complicated by what critics regard as Vietnam’s appalling human rights record, something it shares with the communist government of China.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this month failed to address human rights concerns publicly during an official visit to Vietnam.

In June, Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to use the dialogue in Canberra to raise systematic suppression of freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion.

Human Rights Watch, a widely respected international watchdog, said Australia should press Vietnam to immediately release all political prisoners and revise its controversial cyber security law.

"Australia’s close ties with Vietnam mean the Australian government has a responsibility to speak out publicly on Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record," Pearson said. "The crackdown on basic rights in Vietnam is escalating, with more political prisoners being unjustly detained for longer terms."

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of at least 131 people behind bars in Vietnam for what it maintains was simply exercising their basic rights.

Activists and bloggers in Vietnam face physical assaults by official or government-connected thugs who are not punished, it said.

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Vietnam’s cybersecurity law, which came into effect in January, requires service providers to take down content that authorities consider offensive within 24 hours of receiving a request.

"Australia should press Vietnam to amend this law and to end the government's systemic repression of dissidents and peaceful activists," Pearson said.

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