An international human rights group has asked the foreign minister of Japan to demand that Vietnam grant its citizens political and religious freedoms when he visits this week. Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, who is also the deputy prime minister, will co-host the 10th Vietnam-Japan Cooperation Committee meeting in Hanoi on Sept. 13. Human Rights Watch
urged Kono to raise critical human rights concerns with his counterpart, including limits on freedom of speech and assembly, religious restrictions, incarceration of political prisoners and violations of labor rights. "Dissidents and human rights' defenders have been harassed or subjected to violence at the hands of police or persons who appear to be plainclothes government agents," the organization said. Human Rights Watch said the communist government typically viewed those who advocate democracy and human rights as criminals threatening national security. The watchdog said at least 130 political prisoners are behind bars. This year alone, at least 28 rights activists and bloggers have been sentenced to long prison terms
. "The government monitors, harasses and sometimes violently cracks down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions," Human Rights Watch said. Followers of independent religious bodies are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of their faith, detention, interrogation, torture and imprisonment. The Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, wrote to Kono on Sept. 9 calling on him to urge Vietnam to allow free self-management of independent religious organizations. Adams also asked Kono to press Vietnam to unconditionally release all political prisoners immediately. "Every release of a political prisoner is a welcome step; however, we hope you will also make the point that releases alone do not constitute lasting reform," he added. Adams said many activists in Vietnam are looking to Japan to push for adoption of international human rights standards that campaigners inside the country are themselves taking great risks to promote. "We urge you to affirm that Japan stands with these brave Vietnamese human rights activists, and the public at large, in their struggle to demand their government respect basic freedoms," he added. On Sept. 9, Vietnam refused entry to Debbie Stothard
, secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights, when she arrived at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi. She had planned to attend the World Economic Forum on ASEAN, an event bringing together 900 political, business, academic and civil society leaders from 12 countries.