Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, good afternoon.
Thank you for this opportunity to add to the testimony on the human rights situation in Vietnam. Last month, you heard from my colleague and chairman of Viet Tan, Mr. Do Hoang Diem. I hope the hearing today not only enriches and adds to your understanding but spurs you to action.
As you may know, the Government of Vietnam has prevented many human rights activists from leaving the country to attend conferences, meet with regional human rights groups, or appear in front of committees such as this. The Vietnamese government often employs tactics such as withholding or confiscating passports when they arrive at the airport. My organization, Viet Tan, has documented over 30 such travel bans in the last two years.
It’s especially fortunate, then, to have these two gentlemen here today to bear witness to police brutality and the daily repression they face in their work. Mr. Truong Minh Tam is a human rights defender and a former political prisoner. He’ll be able to give a first-hand account of his experiences in arbitrary confinement and the harrowing prison torture of his friend, Dang Xuan Dieu, a well-known social activist. Reverend Nguyen Manh Hung, a noted religious leader, represents the Interfaith Council, one of Vietnam’s first truly independent civil society groups.
Originally, two family members of those who’ve received some of the longest prison sentences were supposed to be here. They were unable to travel from Vietnam for this hearing. I would like to submit their testimony to the committee at a later date.
Many human rights defenders and political activists in Vietnam face daily repression in the form of police surveillance, interrogation, and beatings. Those who become targets of the Hanoi regime are arrested, often under arbitrary charges, and denied adequate legal representation. The proceedings that follow are often show trials.
Such a travesty took place in January 2013 in one of the largest political trials to take place in Vietnam in recent years. In total, 14 peaceful activists were sentenced to 86 years in jail. Today, I was supposed to have images of these individuals, which I will submit to you at a later date. But I want to mention them by name just because they received the longest sentences: Mr. Dang Xuan Dieu, 13 years; Mr. Ho Duc Hoa, 13 years; Ms. Nguyen Dang Minh Man, eight years.
In November 2013 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that this detention and conviction of these activists for their peaceful activities was in violation of international law. The working group called on the Vietnamese authorities to release these activists and to compensate them for their arbitrary detention. My organization has used this tactic in the past to work directly with the United Nations to contest these arbitrary arrests and has ruled that these individuals were indeed held in arbitrary detention.
If you were to ask Vietnamese officials, they’ll retort that there are only criminals in their jail cells. We know this to be untrue. It is not a crime to advocate for freedom of expression, for political freedom as in the case of Ms. Minh Man. I want to particularly focus on her case because she and I are about the same age and are both human rights activists. I was fortunate enough to have left Vietnam as a political refugee in 1992. I feel that if her family had not been denied political asylum and sent back to a refugee camp in Thailand in the 1990s, she would now be an activist in the Vietnamese diaspora, perhaps testifying here today.
Instead, she has been in a Vietnamese prison for the last four years. She was charged with subversion and initially sentenced to nine years in prison. A freelance photojournalist, she documented the courageous acts of ordinary Vietnamese who painted the initials “HS.TS.VN”, which is a tag signed in public to affirm Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. She is currently held in prison camp 5 in Thanh Hoa province, a facility known for its ill treatment of political prisoners. She has been made to perform arduous physical labour, detained in isolation, and is prohibited from participating in recreational activities. Like many others who have been mistreated or even tortured in prison, Minh Man has undergone two hunger strikes in protest. She has willingly denied what little food she is offered in order to bring attention to her mistreatment.
For Mr. Dieu, Mr. Hoa, and Ms. Minh Man, their courageous dissidence may have placed them in jail, but it is their resistance and resiliency in the face of beatings and denial of adequate food and water that should spur us all to action.
The number of political prisoners in arbitrary confinement in Vietnam is unclear because of the repressive and secretive nature with which many of these arrests happen. The cases that we do know about are because of the tireless work of these gentlemen sitting next to me and those in Vietnam who risk their safety to document arrests and attend closed trials.
Equally important is the role that the international community plays in shining a spotlight on these cases.
I have essentially two simple concrete suggestions for this committee and Parliament today. I urge you, Mr. Chairman, to consider a mechanism to adopt these individuals as prisoners of conscience so that the public may know their stories. When you stand in solidarity with these individuals, their cause becomes your cause. International support is not only desirable but is also the best guarantee for their safety.
An example of this is that when you do take on their case, you would send a letter to the Vietnamese government to raise their case and to press it. Also, in trade agreements, when human rights are being talked about in discussions, these cases should always come up. There should be a list, a priority list of individuals who are most important to you, and you should always ask for their freedom. That's how you negotiate and how you can press for their freedom.
Additionally, Parliament can press the Canadian embassy in Hanoi to make prison visits to ensure that visitation rights, access to medical treatment, and access to adequate food and clean water are being honoured. It is oftentimes when officials from foreign governments visit these prisons that you can ensure such rights are being honoured.
Today I want to quote Mr. Irwin Cotler's fine words on the case of Iranian human rights activists.
You said, “For the remarkable and courageous individuals who dare to challenge the regime, telling their stories is the very least we can do.”
I feel that this applies to the case of Vietnam's prisoners of conscience. We should not only name the perpetrators of human rights violations but honour those in Vietnam who are working tirelessly to champion rights. We should tell the world their stories.
I want to yield my time to these two gentlemen, because they have travelled quite far. I will hand it over to Reverend Hung.