The Struggle for Reform with Michel Tran Duc

Michel Tran Duc, Viet Tan activist, pro-democracy organizer, and the son of an exiled Vietnamese intellectual, addresses the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full remarks

Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga:

I now give the floor to Mr. Michel Tran Duc from Vietnam, who arrived in France at the age of 11 and who started his activities to fight against the legal system in Vietnam in particular as of the age of 18. He had a good example in his own family. His father was a Vietnamese military doctor who was one of the targets when the persecution began against intellectuals. He left and he went to France. He brought over the rest of his family including Michel. So he’s been fighting for democracy in a very intensive manner ever since he arrived in France. And now he’s going to present the situation in his country. Particularly, changes to the legal system in Vietnam, which he considers to be extremely important to change and that it stands now as a means of keeping the administration in place. I’ll give you the floor, sir.

Mr Michel Tran Duc: 

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great honor for me to be here today and to be able to speak before such a prestigious audience. Dear friends, dear colleagues, those who are advocates for democracy, today I’m going to be speaking to you about my country, Vietnam, and the Vietnamese judiciary in particular. 

For many people, Vietnam is a very pretty country; beautiful landscape, beautiful beaches with hot sand, a beautiful bay, a beautiful imperial citadel and wonderful cuisine. For many tourists, and for the uninformed, Vietnam gives a very calm image of a united country that has been on an upward economic curve and has been joining the international community. But behind the appearance of an Asian tiger, Vietnam is hiding a number of problems and all you have to do is scratch it beneath the surface of this beautiful appearance to see that the situation is not as rosy as it would appear.

The current economic growth model is based now on foreign investment and cheap and docile labor, aided by an inexistent labor law. And that means that the country has a socialist-oriented market economy. But this is actually little other than an unbridled capitalist system that is imposed on the Vietnamese people. And even worse, this economic growth creates enormous inequalities that are ever widening thanks to the endemic corruption of the country. And this phenomenon has been compounded by a political system that is self-serving and its clause has spread throughout the cogs and wheels of the administration. This unbridled liberalization has not brought along with it a liberalization of the political system. 

We should remember Vietnam is one of the last bastions of communism in the world with Cuba, China, Laos and North Korea. In this country, where only the communist party has the right to exist, repression of political dissidents and democracy militants is relentless. Vietnam spent a long time isolated on the international scene and for the past 10 years or so, has been seeking to gain greater respectability. And so it has been applying to organizations right and left. For example in 2007 it joined the WTO, it got a non-permanent seat at the Security Council of the UN in 2009, in 2010 it presided over ASEAN the South East Asian Nation Association, and to top it all Vietnam, which has been so criticized for violating human rights, is now a candidate for the Human Rights Council of the United Nations for 2014-16. By occupying these honorary positions, the Vietnamese Communist Regime wants to give the appearance of a civilized country, where the rule of law prevails, where no one is imprisoned for their ideas but only because they break the law. And this is anything but the case. The Hanoi authorities literally twist the law to gag political opposition. Here are a few examples. 

First of all, manipulation of the constitution. In principle, when the rule of law prevails in a country, if a country ratifies an international text, the country must be sure that its constitution is in line with the text. Then the laws, the articles of the laws, must be aligned with the constitution. And lastly, implementation decrees must be in conformity with the laws and show how they should be applied and must be in conformity with the constitution. Vietnam we should recall is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and also of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So theoretically, Vietnam is bound to respect and reinforce human rights at every level. Article four of the Vietnamese Constitution violates a number of articles of these two covenants cited above. What does article 4 say? It stipulates “that the communist party in Vietnam is in the avant-garde of the Vietnamese labor class and faithfully represents the rights and interests of the working class and is the force directing the state and society.” This describes the monopoly of [the] Vietnamese Communist Party and it is a negation of the right to exist of all other political parties in Vietnam. And since other political parties don’t have the right to take power or to govern, there is therefore no reason that they have the right to exist, that goes without saying, and that’s how they do away with all legal political opposition from the constitution of Vietnam. 

Next we have a justice system that takes orders from the regime. The Vietnamese penal code was enacted in 1999, amended in 2009 recently, and Article 1 stipulates that the mission of the penal code is to protect the socialist regime even before that of ensuring the law. With this article it is useless to talk about independence or impartiality of the judiciary or judges and Vietnamese magistrates. Prosecution, the bar, judges all take orders from the chancellery, which takes orders in turn from the communist party. Moreover, prosecutors, judges, clerks, and bar chairpersons are almost all members of the Communist Party and we’ve come first full circle here. Next, in the Vietnamese penal code, there are articles which we call – which are catch-all clauses. We have articles 50, 53 and 69 which ensure respect for the fundamental laws of the Vietnamese and allows them to participate in political life, to organize, to express their views in conformity with the law. But the expression, in conformity with the law, allows the regime in fact in Hanoi to claim that they are enforcing human rights and that they only arrest those who break the law. Because once it’s been translated into the penal code it’s a euphemism to say that many articles of the penal code strongly hamper these freedoms. And I will give you three examples here.

Article 79 of the penal code, which covers subversion or insurgency. This article is applied against all members of a structured political movement, like an organization or political party. It isn’t only in political and dictatorial countries that this type of crime exists. In any democratic country the government can be overthrown at each election. Moreover we don’t talk about being overthrown, we talk about the political change. 

The second article, article 88 of the Vietnamese penal code, sanctions propaganda against the state and the socialist Republic of Vietnam. It is applied to all those who speak freely against the policies carried out by the government. In Vietnam, freedom of expression is strongly hampered by this article. People can express themselves, but they cannot criticize the state or the communist party. If not, they may go to prison for several years. Moreover since 2007 dozens and dozens of people have been sent to jail for having broken this law. 

Article 258 of the penal code which sanctions democratic liberties. This is a kind of oddity that only dictatorships know how to create. According to this article, anyone who would abuse his freedom of expression, press, religion, of association or any other freedom, is liable to sanctions ranging from a warning to three years of re-education, or even prison when the facts are considered to be grave. So you can see that these three articles or “catch-all articles” that are very vague, and the authorities deliberately maintain the ambiguity of these articles so that they can detain anybody they want, at any time, any place. Anyone in Vietnam today can be arrested, detained under any of these three articles. 

The rights of the defense in Vietnam are totally flouted. The Vietnamese code is full of good intentions: presumption of innocence, the equality of all citizens before the law, the guarantee of physical and moral integrity of the accused, impartiality of the investigators, respect of the rights of the defense, etc. But in actual fact this is not at all the case. Article 48 of this code stipulates that persons placed in pre-trial detention must be informed of the reasons for their detention. This is not the case. Those who drafted this article simply omitted to mention the time limit that the person would have to know for these reasons. 

And here I’d like to refer to the case of [Fan Min Wong], a professor of mathematics who is a personal friend. He was arrested in 2010 in August and he was only heard of the charges after having spent several weeks behind bars. In the Vietnamese penal code, moreover, lawyers are not allowed to meet with their clients before the investigation period is over, which can last for up to a year. So for one year they’re put in pre-trial detention and they are alone. They often have interrogation periods and with the heavy-handed treatment sometimes, they are deprived of food sometimes, so that they will confess. And when the police is sure that there’s no longer anything that can be confessed, then they close the investigation and then they call the lawyer. So in the case of my friend [Fan Min Wong],  all the interviews that he had with his lawyer were monitored by the police, which filmed all these interviews and they monitored every second of it. But there’s even worse. 

One of the cases here that we’ll explain, in May of 2011, seven militants of the land title dispute [inaudible] were judged under articles 79 where they risked the death sentence. Now they had been held for months but they were only able to see the lawyers a week before the trial actually took place. Can you imagine? No matter how good a lawyer may be or however talented he may be, how can he possibly prepare the defense of several people who are risking a death sentence just a week before? Is this a modern democratic country? I don’t think so. 

We have very rapid trial periods. Political trials in Vietnam last less than a day, sometimes two or three hours, and the trial actually consists of a discussion during which the authorities have already predetermined the sentence before the trial. It’s very common for the public security office, the prosecution and judges, to meet before the trial and determine the verdict and the sentence. And together, they give a first orientation to the sentence with sanctions that are more or less heavy. For example, if the accused shows repentance, then his sentence may be lighter. But if, on the other hand, he maintains his position and says that he has not committed a crime, freedom of expression, then he will have a heavier sentence. But we have never seen a dissident in Vietnam be acquitted. 

And when the trial attracts a lot of media attention internationally, or from the diplomats or embassies, then the authorities will allow a certain number of foreign journalists, observers, to watch the trial through a closed circuit camera outside of the courtroom. And outside of the courtroom they have a police cordon to filter those who can come in. These trials are supposedly public, but very often the people who are in the audience have nothing to do with the trial. We even think that they were brought in by [the] public security office to prevent supporters or members of the families [from being] able to attend the trial. And I’d like to go back to my friend [Fan Min Wong]. In August of 2011 during his trial, only his wife was allowed to attend. His mother and his friends were prevented from entering under the pretext that the room was already full. That’s how trials take place in Vietnam. So once the first trial has taken place, dissidents can appeal. But generally, the sentence is confirmed or reduced by a few months if there was a great deal of international pressure. It’s quite exceptional that there be a sharp reduction of the sentence, such as Fan Min Wong who went down from three to 17 months because his trial had raised a human cry. On the other hand, in Vietnam, there is no possibility for appeal. This privilege is reserved to prosecution. And as the prosecution and the judges work hand and glove, there’s no reason to do so. So there’s no way for them to contest the sentence that has been given. And that’s not all. 

Once the dissident has been placed in prison, if ever the lawyer wants to carry out his work thoroughly, he will pay for it. The authorities will attack the lawyer, the lawyers who defend human rights advocates. And as the judiciary is not independent – the bar is not independent either – the bar takes orders from the Ministry of Justice and so when a lawyer is disturbing, the lawyer will be expelled from the bar. Here are pictures of lawyers who were expelled from the bar in Vietnam and the bar did not oppose this. The last victim of this reprisal system against lawyers is Mr. [Me Huynh Van Dong], who was expelled in August of 2011, just a few months ago. He was disbarred. But if he continues to militate for clients or work for a democracy, then they isolate him and there are financial reprisals. Me Le Tran Luat is often harassed and he is being forced now to be re-educated for six months. He has been contesting this and it hasn’t been actually put into implementation but that is the rule hanging above him, the ruling hanging above him. 

So you can see that Vietnam is trying to show that it is civilized but you can see that the country is one of the most backward regimes in the world in terms of its judiciary, which is worthy of the worst years of Stalin or Mao. It’s a shame that in Vietnam that we don’t have these technical irregularities. Because if we did then we wouldn’t have so many political prisoners in the prisons; they are overflowing right now. It is being said that Vietnam is trying to revise its constitution and penal code. Well if this is true, let us work together to put pressure on the country so that this revision will lead to real progress on the Vietnamese penal system. So that it will – so the articles that I mentioned will be removed because they don’t belong there anymore if Vietnam truly wishes to integrate itself into the international scene. 

I thank you for your kind attention

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