12.06.2020
Human Rights Without Frontiers

EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement: HRWF calls for the release of 28 Buddhist prisoners

Human Rights Without Frontiers urges: the Members of the European Parliament, the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Sub-committee on Human Rights, and other institutions of the European Union to ask Vietnam to release all believers that have exercised their legitimate right to practise their religion.

Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) calls upon the EU institutions to strictly monitor the implementation of the human rights provisions included in the a free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), which will enter into force on 1 July 2020, and in particular the freedom of association of Buddhist and Christian groups.

When the EP Trade Committee backed the agreement earlier this year, it linked its green light to the respect of “labour and human rights” by Vietnam. The press release of the Committee stressed that “The agreement commits Vietnam to apply the Paris Agreement. Vietnam scheduled the ratification of two remaining bills on the abolition of forced labour and on freedom of association by 2020 and 2023, respectively. If there are human rights breaches, the trade deal can be suspended.”

The National Assembly of Vietnam has now ratified a free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), which will enter into force on 1 July 2020. 

On 30 June 2019, the European Union and Vietnam signed a Trade Agreement and an Investment Protection Agreement. The European Parliament subsequently gave its consent to both Agreements on 12 February 2020 and the Free Trade Agreement was concluded by Council on 30 March 2020.

The Reasons for the Persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 97 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to statistics released by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), 26.4 percent of the population is categorized as religious believers:  14.91 percent is Buddhist, 7.35 percent Roman Catholic, 1.09 percent Protestant, 1.16 percent Cao Dai, and 1.47 percent Hoa Hao Buddhist.[1]

In Vietnam, government restrictions have sharply limited all religious activities for both registered and non-registered groups. In 1981, six years after the Communists took power over the whole country, the new government unified a number of Buddhist organisations under the umbrella group Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (BSV) which was placed under its authority. 

The Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (UBSV), founded in 1964 in order to unite 11 of the 14 different Buddhist groups, refused allegiance to the Communist regime and was banned. The UBSV was denied the official authorization to operate and was consequently banned. The UBSV Patriarch, Thich Quang Do, who had been under house arrest since his appointment in 1999, died in February 2020 at the age of 92. 

Religious teachings are considered to be incompatible with communist ideology, and any form of assembly is perceived as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. Consequently, all religious groups are supposed to be under the strict rule of the Communist Party. Buddhist leaders who refuse allegiance to the Communist Party are harassed and imprisoned while their groups are declared illegal or banned. 

Two groups are particularly persecuted: An Dan Dai Dao and Hoa Hao Buddhists.

An Dan Dai Dao (ADDD) is a Buddhist group founded in 1969 that was quickly outlawed and persecuted after the Communist takeover in 1975. Most of the properties have now been expropriated, while followers were forced into hiding. The leaders of ADDD have long been treated as criminals. Phan Van Thu, — its founder and leader — was accused by the authorities of working for the CIA and intending to “rebel” against the regime.[2]

Phat Giao Hoa Hao (known simply as Hoa Hao) [3] was established on 4 July 1939 by Buddhist reformer Huynh Phu So in the southern Vietnamese province of An Giang. Hoa Hao Buddhism is described by Encyclopaedia Britannica Online as “an amalgam of Buddhism, ancestor worship, animistic rites, elements of Confucian doctrine, and indigenous Vietnamese practices”.[4] The government officially recognizes the Hoa Hao religion but imposes harsh controls on dissenting groups that do not follow the state-sanctioned branch. As an independently organized religious group, they are denied registration and the government cracks down hard on their gatherings and temples.

Buddhists in Prison in Vietnam

Two Buddhist groups are particularly persecuted because they refuse to swear allegiance to the Communist Party: An Dan Dai Dao and Hoa Hao Buddhists.

Buddhists behind bars: some statistics

As of April 2020, HRWF documented 28 Buddhists who were convicted of criminal offences for practicing their right to freedom of religion or belief.[5] Of these cases, 22 were members of the An Dan Dai Dao group and twenty-one of them were arrested in 2012, with prison terms ranging from 12 to 17 years. One arrest was made in 2014 with a prison term of six years. Almost all of these individuals were charged with subversion under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code and accused of writing documents critical of the government. Life sentence was given in one case, with charges brought under Articles 79, as well as Article 258, which refers to alleged abuses of democratic freedoms, such as freedom of belief and religion, to infringe upon the interest of the State.

The remaining six arrests of the twenty-eight documented cases were of members of the Hoa Hao Buddhist group. They occurred in 2017, with the exception of one case which goes back to 2011. In most of these cases the charges were “causing public unrest”, under Article 245 of the 1999 Penal Code. In one case the charges were brought under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code.

Articles of the Penal Code

Buddhist followers were charged under Articles 79, 88, 245 and 258 of the 1999 Penal Code. 

Article 79 stipulates that those who carry out activities, establish or join organizations with intent to overthrow the people’s administration “shall be sentenced to between twelves and twenty years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment”.[6]

Article 88 states that conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, such as distorting and/or defaming the people’s administration, spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion, “shall be sentenced to between three and twelve years of imprisonment”.

According to Article 245 of the Penal Code, those who “foment public disorder” shall be sentenced to a fine, non-custodial reform for up to two years or between three months and two years imprisonment, and in case of an offence using weapons the offender “shall be sentenced to between two and seven years of imprisonment”. 

Article 258 stipulates that those who “abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” shall be subject to warning, non-custodial reform for up to three years or a prison term of between six months and three years.

In the overwhelming majority of cases the government has extensively used the charge under Article 79, which carries the harshest sentence, namely life imprisonment or capital punishment, can be regarded as the government using the Penal Code as a deterrent against those it perceives to disobey its rule and therefore must bring under its control. It is also indicative that reference to national security indeed plays a central role in the detention of religious followers. 

By invoking vaguely worded provisions in the Penal Code such as “subversion”, or “abuse of democratic freedoms” the government incriminates and silences Buddhists who practice their freedom of religion or belief outside of state-sanctioned religious organizations. 

International advocacy

The European Parliament has regularly followed Vietnam’s overall dire human rights record, in particular violations of freedom of religion or belief. In its November 2018 resolution on Vietnam, the European Parliament noted that freedom of religion or belief is repressed in the country, and non-recognized religions, such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, continue to suffer severe religious persecution. It called on the government to remove all restrictions on freedom of religion and to put an end to the harassment of religious communities. It further urged the government to bring its legislation in conformity with international human rights standards and obligations.[7]

Every year since 2002, USCIRF has recommended that Vietnam be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). 

Conclusions

Vietnam has repressive policies toward Buddhists refusing allegiance to the Communist regime and escaping its official control. Any threat to power, real or perceived, is summarily suppressed.

In July 2014, UN Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, undertook a country visit in Vietnam and acknowledged the tight control that the Government exercises on religious communities. He noted that autonomy and activities of independent religious or belief communities, that is unrecognized communities, remained restricted and unsafe. As a result, he commented in his report, the rights to freedom of religion or belief of such communities are grossly violated in the face of constant surveillance, intimidation, harassment and persecution. During his country visit, the UN Special Rapporteur had to prematurely put an end to his mission because of serious incidents of intimidation and cases of a blatant breach of the principle of confidentiality.[8]

Footnotes

[1] For more religious statistics, see https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vietnam/
[2] https://the88project.org/update-on-political-prisoner-phan-van-thu-from-his-family-march-2020/
[3] https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4df9ef982.pdf
[4] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hoa-Hao-Vietnamese-religious-movement
[5] Our Database is updated on a regular basis, and so for more details about imprisoned Buddhists, see https://hrwf.eu/prisoners-database/
[6] https://www.unodc.org/res/cld/document/vnm/penal-code_html/Vietnam_Penal_Code_1999.pdf
[7] Joint Motion for a Resolution, European Parliament, November 14, 2018, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-8-2018-0526_EN.html
[8] Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (30 January 2015), Heiner Bielefeldt, Mission to Viet Nam (21 to 31 July 2014)

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