US Presses Vietnam on Detentions Ahead of Obama Visit

By Matthew Pennington 26 April 2016

WASHINGTON — The United States pressed Vietnam Monday over a recent spate of detentions of government critics and pushed for other progress on human rights ahead of a visit next month by President Barack Obama.

Senior officials of the two governments held an annual dialogue on human rights in Washington. It’s an issue which remains a drag on improving relations between the former enemies.

Tom Malinowski, US assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, said last year saw a sharp decline in arrests and prosecutions for peaceful dissent in Vietnam.

But he told The Associated Press there has been an increase in detentions of activists and bloggers this year, which was raised during Monday’s “open and candid” discussions. He said the United States side “expressed our hope that this would be addressed and that some of the longstanding cases of concern would be resolved.”

Vietnam’s delegation was led by Vu Anh Quang, director general of the Department of International Organizations at the Foreign Ministry. The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Obama will visit Vietnam in May, becoming the third consecutive US president to do so, four decades after the end of the Vietnam War.

The United States and Vietnam have deepened ties in recent years as Washington looks to widen its circle of friends in Southeast Asia and finds common cause with Hanoi in countering a rising China. Vietnam is also a member of the US-backed regional trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was signed in February.

Vietnam recently adopted some laws to improve legal protections for citizens and has agreed to allow independent labor unions, currently forbidden, under a labor agreement that takes effect once TPP is ratified by both nations.

But the ruling Communist Party still brooks no dissent.

According to a recent State Department report, Vietnam held about 95 political prisoners at the end of 2015. Human Rights Watch says that during the last week of March, Vietnam convicted seven bloggers and rights activists and sentenced them to prison.

Among the individual cases of detainees raised by the United States on Monday was Nguyen Van Dai, a prominent human rights lawyer who was arrested in December on charges of spreading anti-state propaganda. In 2007, Dai was sentenced to four years on a similar charge.

Malinowski said the United States was also closely watching Vietnam’s progress on legal reforms.

Laws on demonstrations, non-government groups and religion that Vietnam’s National Assembly is due to take up this year could have an important impact on respect for human rights, he said.