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US Urges Vietnam to Release Political Prisoners Ahead of Obama Visit

FILE - Nguyen Van Dai, right, testifies in this May 2013 file photo, originally taken from TV footage. The well-known Vietnamese human rights lawyer was arrested on anti-state "propaganda" charges.

The United States has urged the Vietnamese government to release all political prisoners and cease its harassment of civil society activists. Officials made the appeal ahead of President Barack Obama’s first visit to Vietnam in May.

“The promotion of human rights remains a crucial part of U.S. foreign policy and is a key aspect of our ongoing dialogue within the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby Monday, as the U.S. and Vietnam held the 20th session of their Human Rights Dialogue in Washington.

The Dialogue has covered a wide range of human rights issues, including the importance of continued progress on legal reform efforts, rule of law, freedom of expression and assembly, religious freedom, labor rights, disability rights, LGBT rights, multilateral cooperation, as well as individual cases of concern, according to the State Department.

The U.S. had expressed deep concerns over the case of Nguyen Van Dai, a human rights lawyer who was arrested by authorities in mid-December of 2015.

The arrest came as he was preparing to meet European Union delegates who were in Hanoi for EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue.

Speaking on Nguyen’s case last December, the State Department urged Vietnamese authorities to ensure its actions were consistent with its international obligations and called on Hanoi to “release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience.”

FILE - Blogger JB Nguyen Huu Vinh (front) takes photos while attending an anti-China protest in Hanoi.
FILE - Blogger JB Nguyen Huu Vinh (front) takes photos while attending an anti-China protest in Hanoi.

Another high-profile case is the trial of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (also known as Anh Ba Sam), who was sentenced to five years in prison last month for what authorities called “abusing rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.”

The State Department raised several concerns about Vietnam in its 2015 Country Report for Human Rights Practices. These problems included “severe government restrictions of citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government through free and fair elections; limits on citizens’ civil liberties, including freedom of assembly, association, and expression; and inadequate protection of citizens’ due process rights, including protection against arbitrary detention. ”

While newspapers and TV stations still face censorship and legal restrictions in Vietnam, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted progress in Hanoi’s human rights practices, including commitments to bring domestic laws into synch with international human rights obligations.

Blinken applauded Vietnam’s ratification of the Convention against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as allowing “independent trade unions for the first time in modern history,” in a speech at a Hanoi university last Thursday.

He also commended the Vietnamese government’s efforts to consult with a range of local religious and civil society stakeholders during the drafting of a new religion law, which the U.S. hopes will protect the rights of people of different faiths.