A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

When tons of dead fish first started to appear last year on Vietnam’s central coast, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, was among the first dissident bloggers to call for corporate and government accountability for what has been one of the country’s worst ever environmental disasters.

Last week, after being held incommunicado in pretrial detention for over eight months, Quynh was sentenced to ten years in prison for “propagandizing” against the state, a criminal offense in Vietnam’s one-party political system.

The widely-condemned verdict has put Vietnam’s rights record under renewed scrutiny as it reaches towards the US and European Union for new trade deals to lessen its rising economic reliance on China. Whether the uptick in abuses complicates those bids is yet to be seen.

In recent weeks, Vietnamese authorities have cancelled the citizenship of a dual national dissident and expelled him to France, while at the same time considered new legislation that will require lawyers to inform on their clients in matters viewed by officials as a threat to national security.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (L), aka “Mother Mushroom”, stands trial in the central city of Nha Trang on June 29, 2017. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency

Rights lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW), meanwhile, released a report last month that details widespread and systemic violence against activists by plain clothes officials and “thugs.”

HRW notes that the number of political prisoners in recent years has dropped significantly, an important metric for the US and EU when measuring progress on human rights. However, the report says the number of physical attacks on activists, often by masked anonymous assailants, has simultaneously dramatically increased at a time a new generation of dissidents looks to social media to organize online.

The US and EU have previously rewarded Vietnam for demonstrable progress on rights. The George W. Bush administration, for instance, agreed to Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2007 in exchange for allowances of more religious freedoms, including the country’s long persecuted Catholic minority.

But those gains have been short-lived and often later reversed. Many hoped the previously US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact would nudge Vietnam towards more political openness, including vis-a-vis labor rights and government transparency.

US President Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

But the Donald Trump administration’s decision to withdrawal from the multilateral trade pact in January has meant that the rights and transparency concerns the international community hoped would be addressed in the agreement likely now won’t.

As a result, the US and EU may have less leverage to press for change. That was made clear with last week’s unusually harsh sentencing of Quynh, who earlier this year was bestowed the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.

A US spokeswoman called for Quynh’s release and broadly for greater allowances for free expression on the day of her conviction, saying the US was “deeply concerned.”

Former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, an internationalist keen to improve Vietnam’s place in the international community, agreed to certain human rights concessions as needed.

Those calls have gone less answered under Vietnam’s current leadership troika, including President Tran Dai Quang, former head of the Ministry of Public Security, the lead agency in charge of suppressing dissent.

Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam January 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kham

The President is traditionally the least powerful and most ceremonial in the ruling troika, which also includes the Prime Minister and Secretary General of the Communist Party.

Yet Quang personally signed the executive order that stripped blogger and mathematics lecturer Hoang of his Vietnamese nationality, despite his pleas to stay in the country to care for his elderly mother-in-law.

Hoang, who did a previous stint in prison for his critical commentaries and complained of being “conspicuously followed” by uniformed officials before his deportation, was effectively forced onto an airplane to France, where he also holds citizenship.

He was dealt with via official legal channels but according to HRW and other anecdotal evidence attacks on citizen journalists and activists by masked men who inflict often severe physical damage are on the rise.

Vietnamese dissident blogger Pham Minh Hoang in a Paris hotel after his deportation. Photo: AFP/Jacques Demarthon 

Lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, who has been in prison several times over the past decade for his advocacy and activism, recounts in the HRW report an attack by a group of masked men who dragged he and his associates apart and assaulted them with sticks.

HRW’s research, as with others detailing police violence, is amply illustrated with photographs of swollen faces laced with red and purple bruises and lacerations. However, the report does not say that these are necessarily new abusive techniques.

The point it does make, however, might give Western governments pause: “By using informal thuggish attacks rather than formal court trials to repress dissent, Vietnam reduces the number of political prisoner cases it has, which is also an important metric for judging changes in a country’s human rights record.”

Vietnamese Americans protest outside the White House before US President Donald Trump’s meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Washington, U.S., May 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Recent legal changes, meanwhile, will make it easier for authorities to justify suppression of dissidents through anti-state provisions, including through new clauses and greater allowable penalties in the criminal code.

Another new law will require lawyers to report their clients to authorities for security “crimes”, a move the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association condemned as a “step back” for the penal code.

The US might normally say something about such retrograde legal changes, but seems less likely to under President Donald Trump, who did not raise human rights issues during his meeting at the White House in May with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Trade and security issues led the agenda at the high-profile visit, the first by any Southeast Asia leader under Trump, though no new bilateral deal is in sight yet.

President Donald Trump welcomes Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to the White House on May 31, 2017. Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto 

The US Congress, which still must approve each lethal weapons sale to Vietnam despite the lifting last year of a decades-old weapons embargo, could bring up the issue of rights abuses during deliberations of any proposed future sale. Congressional members with large Vietnamese constituencies have successfully done so in the past.

The European Commission, meanwhile, pressed Hanoi on human rights concerns during a European Parliament member visit in February, suggesting that a planned trade deal with the EU might be blocked without significant improvements.

Quynh’s conviction, Hoang’s deportation and the HRW report will provide fresh ammunition for human rights groups to advocate for more punitive measures and less engagement with Hanoi. Whether the US and EU follow up with new punitive measures, however, seems unlikely amid rising competition for influence in the region.

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