Human rights issues are emerging as a major sticking point in President Barack Obama’s trip to Vietnam later this month, as activists and some politicians are pushing the administration to make Hanoi’s record a cornerstone of any new agreements between the two nations.
The issue was given a human face this week as the wife of a prominent Vietnamese human rights lawyer who was badly beaten by thugs and then detained by authorities appealed Tuesday for Obama to seek her husband's freedom when he visits Vietnam later this month.
Vu Minh Khanh testified before a House panel on global human rights just hours after, the White House formally announced Obama would travel to Vietnam on May 22.
While the trip is a sign of deepening relations between Washington and Hanoi some four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, human rights are still a contentious issue that stands in the way of a deeper reconciliation between the former foes.
Vietnam's Article 88
Speaking through an interpreter, Khanh told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights that her husband Nguyen Van Dai faces between three and 20 years imprisonment under the notorious Article 88 of the Vietnamese penal code that makes “conducting propaganda against the state” a crime.
She told a hearing in Washington this week that Dai has been detained for nearly five months and has not been allowed access to family or defense lawyers. She said she's allowed to take him food twice a month at a detention center in the capital Hanoi, but she has no idea if he gets it.
“Each time Dai was attacked, it related to his work because the government did not like it and had requested him to stop doing human rights work,” she told the panel. “My husband accepted the high risks that come with these activities, and in fact, this is the reality that human rights activists in Vietnam have to face constantly.”
She said that 10 days prior to Dai's Dec. 16 arrest, he was attacked and severely injured by "thugs with batons" after he conducted a human rights training session. She said her husband filed a complaint and the government said it didn't know who the assailants were.
She said that his release during Obama's visit would symbolize the president's support for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.
Dai is one of about 100 political prisoners that rights experts estimate the Vietnamese government has in custody, although Hanoi denies holding any political prisoners.
Human rights are only one of the issues on Obama’s agenda, which also includes a regional trade agreement and the shared geopolitical challenge of coping with China’s aggressive policies in the South China Sea.
“In the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam, there are factors including politics, the military and China,” Nguyen Ba Tung, coordinator of Vietnam Human Rights Network, told RFA.
While Hanoi has made some positive moves on human rights by releasing some political prisoners and passing new laws, there are questions about whether this is simply window dressing.
“We still see big gaps between what they said and what they did when looking back at the implementation of new law,” he said. “This means that while there are new laws, it still looks like lawlessness.”
“Was the release of prisoners due to the goodwill of the government, pressure from the world or just because they served their time or the government of Vietnam now has a new attitude towards human rights?” he added. “Contrary to the comments of some observers who think that there is some progress, I totally disagree with those comments.”
According to reports Obama is considering whether to lift a three-decade-old arms embargo on Vietnam, U.S. officials say, as he weighs calls to forge closer military ties with Hanoi.
Vietnam is a crucial player in the drama unfolding in the South China Sea as Beijing attempts to bring that part of the Pacific under its control.
While China has been one of fellow communist, one-party state Vietnam’s political allies, the two countries have historically been less than friendly. An attempt by China to invade Vietnam in 1979 was rebuffed.
More recently Vietnam has become more restive over China’s claims and behavior in the South China Sea. When China moved an oil rig into Vietnamese-claimed waters in 2014, anti-Chinese protests and riots erupted in major Vietnamese cities.
The White House said that Obama will discuss with Vietnam's leadership how to advance cooperation on the economy, security and human rights. He will also meet with members of civil society.
Senior State Department officials were in Vietnam Tuesday, including top human rights envoy, Tom Malinowski, who last month said he raised Dai's case with Vietnamese officials amid concern over a recent spate of detentions of government critics.
Two Republican lawmakers called on Obama to demand that Vietnam release its political prisoners as a condition for any deal the White House makes with Hanoi.
"The administration seems eager to proceed with lucrative trade deals and to lift the ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam, without imposing any real conditions," Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey told the hearing.
"The situation is not improving. Human rights have got to be at the top of the president's agenda," said Rep. Ed Royce of California.
There were some indications that Obama is listening.
Tom Malinowski, the administration’s top human rights envoy, and Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, are in Vietnam in advance of the trip.
Speaking in Hanoi on Tuesday, Russel said that lifting the embargo is “under periodic review” and would be looked at seriously, although he made it clear Vietnam’s commitment to human rights would be central to any decision, according to a report in Fortune.
“One of the important factors that would make a lift of the ban possible would be to continue forward momentum in meeting universal human rights standards and progress in important legal reform,” Russel told reporters.
Reported for RFA's Vietnamese Service by Kinh Hoa. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.