Risks to Rights Defenders for Speaking out in International Fora
During the March 26 congressional hearing on human rights in Vietnam, Congressman Frank Wolf called for the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam to monitor the safety of Phan Van Loi and Nguyen Bach Phung, two religious freedom activists who testified directly from Vietnam via video hookup.
The hearing was the first time that the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission had arranged for witness testimony via the Internet. The Vietnamese government, which strictly restricts the movement of certain outspoken dissidents, would likely have barred the two activists from leaving the country to testify abroad about human rights,
At the hearing, Catholic priest Phan Van Loi was able to testify live and take questions in real time. This was not the case, however, for Nguyen Bach Phung a clergy member of an independent Cao Dai sect. At the time of the hearing, plainclothes police had surrounded had her house in Tay Ninh province, and her electricity and internet access were abruptly cut off.
The Commission was prepared not only for possible technical difficulties for witnesses to testify directly from Vietnam, but political obstacles as well. It had arranged for both participants to prepare videotaped copies of their testimonies in advance of the hearing. This meant that through pre-recorded testimony, Nguyen Bach Phung was able to get her message across to the audience, who could see and listen to her.
Phan Van Loi and Nguyen Bach Phung now face the risk of government reprisals for their frank and factual public advocacy. The same goes for other Vietnamese dissidents who participated via the Internet at a conference on Vietnam Civil Society on March 27, organized by Boat People SOS and co-chaired by members of Congress.
The risks rights defenders in Vietnam face are real. Vietnamese authorities have arrested Montagnards for collecting information about people in prison and re-education camps, and Khmer Krom Buddhists for being in contact with Khmer Krom advocacy groups abroad.
Several Vietnamese dissidents have been arrested and imprisoned after submitting testimony to the U.s. Congress or meeting with official delegations from the U.S. In 2011, Hoa Hao Buddhist leader Nguyen Van Lia was arrested after meeting with US diplomats and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to discuss persecution of the Hoa Hao. Father Nguyen Van Ly was arrested in 2001 after submitting invited written testimony to the U.S. Congress regarding religious freedom violations in Vietnam.
One week after the March 26 hearing, Congressman Wolf sent a letter to U.S. Ambassador David Shear, in which he urgently requested the Ambassador’s assistance in “safeguarding the safety of these two brave individuals”. He asked the Ambassador to meet with Phan Van Loi and Nguyen Bach Phung in order to verify their status and continue the discussion regarding independent civil society groups in Vietnam. At the end of the letter he added in his own hand: “It is important that you do this. Please let me know how it turns out.”