Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There was one report that government agents committed an arbitrary or unlawful killing. The regional prosecutor is in charge of investigating whether security force killings are justifiable and pursuing prosecution. Each security service also maintains internal investigative bodies to determine whether security force killings were justifiable and can pursue administrative action.
On May 30, a military patrol shot and killed Abass Diallo, a 34-year-old Mauritanian citizen, while he was transporting goods near the country’s southern border. The regional prosecutor opened an investigation into the incident; there was no prosecution by the end of the year.
There were no reports of disappearances by, or on behalf of, government authorities.
The constitution prohibits torture. The law considers torture, acts of torture, and inhuman or degrading punishments as crimes against humanity not subject to a statute of limitations. The law specifically covers activities in prisons, rehabilitation centers for minors in conflict with the law, places of custody, psychiatric institutions, detention centers, areas of transit, and border crossing points.
On May 23, three officers with the Traffic Safety Police arrested and harassed a group of young persons. Video of the arrest was widely shared on social media and showed the officers kicking and harassing the group. The officers involved were arrested and immediately removed from the Traffic Safety Police Force.
During the year, according to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were two allegations submitted of sexual exploitation and abuse by Mauritanian peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. Both cases involved transactional sex with an adult.
The National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture (MNP) is an independent governmental body charged with investigating credible allegations of torture. The government appointed new members of the MNP in September. The MNP has not launched any investigations since its inception in 2016.
Complaints filed with the courts for allegations of torture were submitted to police for investigation. The government continued to deny the existence of “unofficial” detention centers, even though NGOs and the United Nations pointed out their continuing usage. Neither the MNP nor the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) directly addressed the existence of these places.
Impunity was a serious problem in the security forces, and it was identified in police forces and the National Guard. Politicization, corruption, and ethnic tensions between the Beydane-majority security forces and Haratine (“Black Moor” Arab slave descendants) and sub-Saharan communities were primary factors contributing to impunity. The government took some steps to conduct information sessions on human rights with security forces. On September 25, the Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization circulated directives to the security services that emphasized the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and that no one is above or outside of the law.
Prison conditions remained life threatening due to persistent food shortages, violence, inadequate sanitary conditions, lack of adequate medical care, and indefinite pretrial detention.
Physical Conditions: Prisons remained overcrowded. In 2018 the UN Committee Against Torture reported that authorities held 2,321 detainees in facilities designed for 2,280 persons. Authorities frequently grouped pretrial detainees with convicts who represented a danger to other prisoners. Male guards frequently monitored female inmates, a practice criticized by the CNDH.
There were two separate prisons for women, one in the capital Nouakchott and the other in the country’s second-largest city, Nouadhibou. Almost all supervisors of female inmates were male because the all-male National Guard was assigned the task of supervising prisons nationwide. The few female supervisors in prisons were not members of the National Guard, but rather were members of civil protection teams (firefighters). Detention conditions for women were generally better than those for men. According to prison officials, the women’s prison in Nouakchott was less crowded than those for men.
Prison authorities held a mixed population of prisoners in prison facilities, regardless of their specific sentences. Drugs were often trafficked among prisoners, which the government acknowledged was caused by lax security procedures surrounding visitors. Prisoners often rebelled and disobeyed authorities, in some cases to protest violence and inhuman treatment meted out by jailers. Poor security conditions and the indiscriminate grouping of inmates meant that prisoners often lived with the threat of violence, while some had to bribe other prisoners to avoid brutalization and harassment. Salafist prisoners complained of mistreatment at the Central Civil Prison of Nouakchott. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reported that in Dar Naim, the largest prison in the country, inmates partially managed one wing of the prison while staff secured the other half. Narcotics, weapons, and cash reportedly circulated freely because staff could not effectively screen goods that entered the prison and could not safely enter some areas.
Human rights groups continued to deplore the lack of adequate sanitation and medical facilities in prisons nationwide, particularly in the Dar Naim men’s prison and at the Central Civil Prison of Nouakchott. The government allocated a budget of 50 ouguiyas ($1.35) a day for each prisoner for food and medical supplies, an amount observers deemed inadequate. Ventilation, lighting, and potable water in many cells and holding areas ranged from inadequate to nonexistent.
In 2018 the Directorate of Penal Affairs and Prison Administration within the Ministry of Justice established a youth detention center in Nouakchott, which held 58 minors during the year. The regular prison in Nouadhibou held nine minors. An Italian NGO continued to operate a separate detention center for minors, the only prison facility that came close to meeting international standards. These facilities operated in addition to youth detention centers located in police stations throughout the country.
Administration: Authorities permitted prisoners to file allegations of abuse with the CNDH and the MNP. Government regulations also allowed inmates to elect one representative in dealings with the prison administration, and prisoners occasionally made use of this opportunity. The government acknowledged allegations of inhuman conditions but rarely took corrective action. Periodically prisoners were transferred to prisons in the interior of the country to alleviate the overflow of prisoners held in Nouakchott; however, these transfers often meant that prisoners were separated from their families and legal representatives, and it increased the average length of time prisoners were held in pretrial detention.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison and detention center visits by NGOs, diplomats, and international human rights observers. The CNDH carried out unannounced visits to these detention centers. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had unlimited access to prisons and conducted multiple visits, including visits to prisoners suspected of terrorist activities.
Improvements: International and local partners, including the ICRC, the Noura Foundation, and Caritas-Mauritania, contributed to the improvement of general hygiene and living conditions in the detention centers and prisons with the support of the government. In particular the ICRC helped to improve infrastructure, hygiene, and health conditions in detention centers and rehabilitated the sanitation network of Dar Naim Prison. The ICRC also implemented a program to combat malnutrition in prisons, including the main prisons in Aleg and Dar Naim, by rehabilitating kitchen facilities and periodically providing medicines and other hygiene products.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but authorities did not always observe these prohibitions. A detainee has the legal right to challenge the lawfulness of his or her detention under two circumstances: first, if a person remains arrested after the end of his or her legal period of detention; and second, if the detainee disagrees with his or her sentence, in which case he or she has the right to file an appeal before a court of appeal or the Supreme Court.
Authorities generally did not inform detainees of the accusations against them until the conclusion of police investigation. With few exceptions, individuals could not be detained for more than 48 hours without evidence, and prosecutors may extend the period for an additional 48 hours in some cases. Because nonbusiness days are not counted within this 48-hour maximum period, police officers often arrested individuals on a Wednesday or Thursday to keep them in custody for a full week. If a person is detained on terrorism charges, that individual can be held in custody for as long as 45 days. The law requires that a suspect be brought before a judicial officer and charged with a crime within 48 hours; however, authorities did not generally respect this right.
The 126th UN Human Rights Committee conducted its periodic country review in 2019 and noted police records of detainees in police stations were poorly maintained. Only after the prosecutor submits charges does a suspect have the right to contact an attorney. By law indigent defendants are entitled to an attorney at state expense, but legal representation was frequently either unavailable or attorneys did not speak the defendant’s language (and were not always provided translation services). Judges often arbitrarily refused requests for bail or set inordinately high bail amounts.
Arbitrary Arrest: During the year authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters, human rights activists, and journalists (see section 2.a.). Between February 13 and 15, police arrested 15 persons, most of whom had taken part in a meeting organized in a private residence by the Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM), a group that advocates secularism in the country. Eight of the 15, including the five men who were held in pretrial detention until the court heard their case on October 20, were ultimately convicted “of failure to observe the prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All five men who were kept in pretrial detention were released by October 26 (see section 2.a.).
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem, although no statistics on the average length of detention were available. In 2018 the UN Committee Against Torture reported that 38 percent of detainees were pretrial detainees. As of September there were approximately 1,500 persons in pretrial detention throughout the country. Members of the security forces sometimes arrested demonstrators and held them longer than the legal maximum time, often due to lack of capacity to process cases in a timely manner, and in some cases to obtain confessions. By law authorities may not hold a minor for more than six months while the detainee awaits trial. Nevertheless, there were reports of many individuals, including minors, remaining in pretrial detention for excessively long periods due to judicial inefficiency. During the COVID-19 pandemic, most jurisdictions stopped processing cases, and both the rate and length of pretrial detention increased despite periodic releases of pretrial detainees by the Ministry of Justice.
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government took steps to increase judicial independence and impartiality. Nevertheless, the executive branch continued to exercise significant influence over the judiciary through its ability to appoint and remove judges. Authorities did not always respect or enforce court orders. Observers often perceived judges to be corrupt and unskilled.
The law provides for due process, and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that authorities inform defendants of the charges against them within 48 hours, but the government did not normally respect this provision. Defendants often did not learn of the charges against them until police investigation was complete. Authorities generally provided defendants with free interpretation as required; however, the quality of these services was generally poor. Defendants have the right to a fair and public trial. They also have the right to be present during their trial. All defendants, including the indigent, have the right to legal counsel, but authorities rarely respected this right. Likewise, defendants may confront or question witnesses and present witnesses and evidence in both civil and criminal cases.
Defendants generally had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants enjoy the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right of appeal. These rights extend to minorities and men but do not extend equally to women. Court proceedings are by law conducted in Arabic, and interpreters are not always available for those defendants who do not speak the language. Some bilingual judges could communicate with defendants in French. Sharia is, in part, the basis for trial procedures. Courts did not always treat women equally with men during these proceedings.
A special court for minors hears cases involving persons younger than age 18. Children who appeared before the court received more lenient sentences than adults, and extenuating circumstances received greater consideration. The minimum age for a child to stand trial is 12 years.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Complaints of human rights abuses fall within the jurisdiction of the Administrative Court. Individuals or organizations may appeal decisions to international and regional courts. NGO representatives stated they collaborated with the Administrative Court but added it was not impartial. There are administrative remedies through the social chambers in both the court of appeals and the Supreme Court.
Property ownership in the southern regions has been controversial since the government expelled tens of thousands of non-Arab sub-Saharans from communities along the Senegal River Valley (Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) between 1989 and 1991 amid tensions with neighboring Senegal. Many non-Arabs were dispossessed of their land, which regional officials subsequently sold or ceded to Beydane, also known as “Arabo-Berbers” and “White Moors” (see section 6). Although the government continued to make modest efforts to indemnify returning deportees, it did not fully restore their property rights. The government reimbursed some dispossessed in cash and provided jobs for others.
The constitution prohibits such actions, although there were numerous reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. For example, authorities often entered homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government arbitrarily and selectively applied regulations to suppress individuals or groups of individuals who opposed government policies. Individuals were generally free to criticize the government publicly but were occasionally subject to retaliation. The constitution and law prohibit racial or ethnic propaganda. The government sometimes used these provisions against political opponents, accusing them of “racism” or “promoting national disunity” for speaking out against the extreme underrepresentation in government of disadvantaged populations, namely the Haratines and sub-Saharan Africans.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views with limited restrictions. Throughout the year incidents of government retaliation against media decreased significantly compared with the previous year. Independent media remained the principal source of information for most citizens, followed by government media. Government media focused primarily on official news, but provided increased coverage of opposition activities and views.
Violence and Harassment: There were cases of arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists during the year. On June 3, police arrested Eby Ould Zeidane based on a Facebook post in which he challenged the dates Mauritanians observe the annual fast in the Islamic month of Ramadan. Eby was released on June 8. Another blogger, Mommeu Ould Bouzouma, was arrested on May 5 and spent 10 days in detention for criticizing the governor of the Tiris Zenmour region. In January authorities arrested two reporters for Sahel TV, Mohamed Ali Ould Abdel Aziz and Abdou O. Tajeddine. The reporters were arrested for videos and articles deemed insulting to the president. They were released after two days.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Local NGOs and bloggers, among other observers, reported that a government official met with journalists for four international media outlets to warn them regarding one-sided coverage of slavery or sensitive topics that could harm national unity or the country’s reputation.
Libel/Slander Laws: There is a law against blasphemy, which is punishable by death, although the country has not carried out any executions since 1987. Between February 13 and 15, authorities arrested 15 persons and later charged eight of them with blasphemy and insulting Islam after they attended a meeting organized by AREM; three of the eight were also charged with disseminating content that “undermines the values of Islam” under cybersecurity and terrorism laws. Five of the eight men were held in pretrial detention until their hearing on October 20. The Nouakchott West Criminal Court decided not to convict the men of blasphemy and instead convicted them of lesser crimes. The five men held in pretrial detention since February were all released by October 26 (see section 1.d.).
During the year the government rarely restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content, and there was no evidence that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Between September 21 and September 30, the government disrupted the country’s 3G network several times as part of a coordinated, annual effort to combat cheating on the national high school exams. The networks were immediately re-established upon conclusion of the exam period on each day.
On June 24, the National Assembly approved a new law aimed at prohibiting allegedly false news posts on social media. The law aims to fight against the manipulation of information during an election period or during periods of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Many opposition parliamentarians as well as human rights activists denounced the law, declaring that it risks undermining the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. A religious training center linked to the political opposition was shut down by the government in 2018 and remained closed.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government sometimes limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly. Registered political parties are not required to seek permission to hold meetings or demonstrations. The law requires NGO organizers to apply for permission to hold large meetings or assemblies. Authorities usually granted permission but on some occasions denied it in circumstances that NGOs claimed were politically motivated.
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally, but not in every instance, respected this right. During the year authorities continued to prevent several NGOs, including prominent antislavery organizations, from registering and legally operating. The law requires that the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization grant authorization prior to an association operating in the country. On February 18, the government held workshops with NGOs and members of civil society to get feedback on a proposed law that would alter the registration process for associations and allow NGOs that have been denied registration a chance to operate more freely.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions. From March through early September, the government maintained a number of restrictions on freedom of movement in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. These included a halt on all international and most interregional travel, as well as a nighttime curfew.
In-country Movement: Persons lacking identity cards could not travel freely in some regions. As in previous years, government security and safety measures included frequent use of mobile roadblocks where gendarmes, police, or customs officials checked the papers of travelers.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, vulnerable migrants, and other persons of concern. Resources provided by the government were inadequate to meet the assistance needs of these populations. On July 7, the parliament approved new legislation on human trafficking and migration that focus on the prevention, investigation, prosecution, and protection of victims.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The UNHCR carries out refugee status determinations under its mandate and then presents cases to the National Consultative Commission for Refugees for recognition.
In accordance with agreements with the Economic Community of West African States on freedom of movement, the government allows West Africans to remain in the country for up to three months, after which they must apply for residency or work permits. Authorities immediately deported migrants determined to be illegally seeking to reach Spain’s nearby Canary Islands.
According to the law, children born to Mauritanian fathers and foreign mothers are automatically Mauritanian, whether born inside or outside the country. The law allows children born outside the country to Mauritanian mothers and foreign men to obtain Mauritanian nationality at age 17. If the father is stateless, children born outside the country are subject to statelessness until age 17, at which point the child is eligible for nationality. The unwillingness of local authorities to process thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who returned from Senegal following their mass expulsion between 1989 and 1991 rendered the returnees stateless.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Voters elected former minister of defense Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani as president with 52 percent of the vote in the June 2019 presidential election. Prominent antislavery activist and politician Biram Dah Abeid placed second with 19 percent of the vote, while Mohamed Ould Boubacar, a former prime minister backed by the Islamist party, placed third with 17 percent. Observers from the United Nations and African Union judged the election to be relatively free and fair, with no evidence of large-scale fraud that could have materially influenced the outcome of the vote. The presidential elections represented the first transition of power from one democratically elected leader to another since the country’s independence in 1960.
In 2018 the party founded by the former president, the Union for the Republic, won 95 of 157 seats in the National Assembly in legislative elections, which the African Union judged to be relatively free and fair.
Political Parties and Political Participation: There are some restrictions on the ability for political parties to register. By decree all political parties must be able to gain at least one percent of votes in two consecutive elections, and this decree continues to limit the overall number of political parties that can participate. The government continued to deny the registration for some activist parties, including the Forces of Progressive Change. The government took some steps to address the ethnic disparity in political leadership. Under the previous regime, the Beydane elite (“White Moor” Arabs) accounted for at most 30 percent of the population but occupied approximately 80 percent of government leadership positions; Haratines constituted at least 45 percent of the population but held fewer than 10 percent of the positions; and the various sub-Saharan ethnic groups (Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) constituted an estimated 25 percent of the population and accounted for fewer than 10 percent of leadership positions. Of the 26 ministers in the cabinet, five come from a Haratine ethnic background, and five from a sub-Saharan ethnic background. Unlike in previous governments, the existing cabinet is largely made up of technocrats.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Traditional and cultural factors restricted women from participating in political life on an equal basis with men. Despite laws promoting women’s access to elective positions (including a quota of 20 percent of seats reserved for women on lists of candidates in legislative and local elections and a quota of 20 seats reserved for women in the National Assembly) the number of women in electoral politics remained low. Following the 2018 legislative elections, women held 19.6 percent of seats in the 157-member National Assembly, which was slightly lower compared to the 2014 election results in which women held 22 percent of seats. Five women were named to the new cabinet: one from the non-Arab sub-Saharan ethnic community, one from the Haratine ethnic community, and three from the Beydane (“White Moor”) ethnic community.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by government officials, but authorities did not enforce the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were reports of government corruption during the year. The law defines corruption as “all exploitation by a public agent of his position for personal purposes, whether this agent is elected, or in an administrative or judicial position.” During the year the country initiated its first-ever parliamentary investigation into corrupt practices under the previous regime.
Corruption: Corruption and impunity were serious problems in public administration, and the government rarely held officials accountable or prosecuted them for abuses. There were reports government officials frequently used their power to obtain personal favors, such as unauthorized exemption from taxes, special grants of land, and preferential treatment during bidding on government projects. Corruption was most pervasive in government procurement but was also common in the distribution of official documents, fishing and mining licenses, land distribution, as well as in bank loans and tax payments. On January 30, the parliament established a commission of inquiry empowered to investigate allegations of serious irregularities in awarding public contracts and the embezzlement of revenues from oil, fishing, and public land sales by the previous president and other senior government officials. The commission issued its report in July and offered specific recommendations for judiciary action. In August specialized police investigators began interrogations of the former president and hundreds of others named in the commission’s report. In August the president removed several members of his government from office, including the former prime minister, because they were implicated in the report. Members of civil society and the international community widely praised the quality and scope of the commission’s report.
Financial Disclosure: The government enforced the requirement that senior officials, including the president, file a declaration of their personal assets at the beginning and end of their government service. This information is not available to the public. There were no penalties for failing to comply.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In March, two former police officers were sentenced to 25 and 20 years’ imprisonment for the shooting deaths of three civilians in 2018.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The law prohibits such practices and limits the situations in which police officers may resort to physical force and the use of firearms. During the year, there were multiple reports of the use of excessive force by security forces. Most complaints involved mistreatment or use of excessive force during incident response or arrest. Conduct of off-duty police officers was also a problem.
In May an off-duty member of the public order battalion allegedly shot a pedestrian when the pedestrian yelled at the car he was riding in for aggressive driving. The national police (PNTL) investigated, and the officer was in detention awaiting trial.
As of October the investigation continued into members of the police task force unit and public order battalion following a 2019 incident in the city of Baucau. Community members alleged the unit responded with excessive force to an incident during the National Sport Festival. Baucau police claimed the victim of the incident was drunk and created a disturbance outside the stadium.
The PNTL and the military suspended members for some months following an internal investigation into allegations they fired their weapons at a music festival in Maliana. The individuals returned to service; their case was pending trial.
Citizens reported obstacles to reporting complaints about police behavior, including repeated requests to return later or to submit their complaints in writing. There was a widespread belief that members of the security forces enjoyed substantial impunity for illegal or abusive actions and that reporting abuse would lead to retaliation rather than positive change. Social media users shared photographs of injuries from alleged encounters with police. Prolonged investigations, delays in bringing cases to trial, and critical editorials from watchdog NGOs also contributed to this perception.
Various bilateral and multilateral partners continued efforts to strengthen the development of the police, especially through community policing programs and technical assistance efforts, including work to improve disciplinary and accountability mechanisms within the PNTL. The Ombudsman’s Office for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ) and the UN Human Rights Adviser’s Unit provided human rights training to both the PNTL and the military.
Prison and detention center conditions generally did not meet international standards.
Physical Conditions: The prison in Dili (Becora), the country’s largest, was grossly overcrowded. It had an estimated capacity of 290 inmates, but in October it held 540 adult and juvenile male and female convicts and pretrial detainees. Separate blocks housed juvenile and adult prisoners, and pretrial detainees were held separately from convicts. Gleno Prison was also overcrowded, with 120 inmates in a prison designed for 80 to 90. Only Suai Prison, also designed for 80 to 90, did not face serious overcrowding problems, although it had 97 inmates.
Gleno Prison held adult male and female convicts and pretrial detainees, all in separate blocks. Conditions were the same for male and female prisoners, who shared recreation areas. Housing blocks separated nonviolent offenders from violent offenders. Prisoners with mental disabilities had access to a psychiatrist, who visited once a week.
Authorities provided food three times daily in prisons and detention centers. While authorities provided water in prisons, it was not always available in detention centers, and Gleno Prison experienced seasonal water shortages.
Medical care was inadequate. A doctor and a nurse staffed a clinic at Becora Prison five days per week and a psychiatrist visited once per week. A doctor visited Gleno Prison twice per week. For urgent cases and more advanced care, authorities took inmates to a local hospital in Gleno or Dili. Prisoners who tested positive for tuberculosis shared cells with tuberculosis-negative prisoners. Access to clean toilets was generally sufficient, although without significant privacy. The PDHJ assessed ventilation and lighting as adequate in prisons but not in detention centers. Prisoners were able to exercise for two hours daily.
According to human rights monitoring organizations, police station detention cells generally did not comply with international standards and lacked sanitation facilities and bedding, although police were making efforts to improve them.
Administration: Prisoners and detainees could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of problematic conditions. The PDHJ oversees prison conditions and prisoner welfare. It monitored inmates and reported the government was generally responsive to recommendations. Nonetheless, some human rights monitoring organizations questioned how widely known the complaint mechanism was and whether prisoners felt free to utilize it.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison visits by the PDHJ, foreign governments, international organizations, local NGOs, and independent human rights observers.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these prohibitions.
The law requires judicial warrants prior to arrests or searches, except in exceptional circumstances or in cases of flagrante delicto.
The law requires a hearing within 72 hours of arrest. During these hearings, the judge may determine whether the suspect should be released because conditions for pretrial detention had not been met, released conditionally (usually after posting some form of collateralized bail or on condition that the suspect report regularly to police), or whether the case should be dismissed due to lack of evidence. Backlogs continued to decrease during the year, particularly in courts outside of Dili, due to changes in the incentive structure for prosecutors and a policy requiring prosecutors to handle more cases. Justice-sector monitoring organizations reported the system adhered much more closely to the 72-hour timeline than in past years.
Time in pretrial detention may be deducted from a final sentence, but there is no remedy to compensate for pretrial detention in cases that do not result in conviction.
The law provides for access to legal representation at all stages of the proceedings, and provisions exist for providing public defenders for all defendants at no cost (see section 1.e.). Due to a lack of human resources and transportation, however, public defenders were not always able to attend to their clients and sometimes met clients for the first time during their first court hearing.
Pretrial Detention: The law specifies that a person may be held in pretrial detention for up to one year without presentation of an indictment, two years without a first-instance conviction, or three years without a final conviction on appeal. If any of these deadlines are not met, the detained person may file a claim for release. Exceptionally complex cases can also provide justification for the extension of each of those limits by up to six months with permission of a judge. In many cases, the length of pretrial detention equaled or exceeded the length of the sentence upon conviction. Pretrial detainees composed approximately 20 percent of the total prison population.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: While persons arrested or detained may challenge the legal basis of their detention and obtain prompt release, justice-sector monitoring organizations reported such challenges rarely occurred, likely due to limited knowledge of the provision allowing such challenges.
The law provides that judges shall perform their duties “independently and impartially without improper influence” and requires public prosecutors to discharge their duties impartially. Many legal-sector observers expressed concern regarding the independence of some judicial organs in politically sensitive cases, a severe shortage of qualified personnel, and the complex legal regime influenced by legacies of Portuguese, Indonesian, and UN administration and various other international norms. An additional problem is that all laws and many trial proceedings and court documents are in Portuguese, a language spoken by approximately 10 percent of the population. Nonetheless, observers noted that citizens generally enjoyed a fair, although not always expeditious, trial and that the judiciary was largely independent.
Administrative failings involving the judge, prosecution, or defense led to prolonged delays in trials. Moreover, the law requires at least one international judge on a panel in cases involving past human rights abuses. There had been no new such cases since 2014; in addition, cases opened before 2014 were left pending indefinitely with no timeline for coming to trial.
There were 33 judges and 34 prosecutors in the country as of September. The government and judicial monitoring organizations cited human resource problems as a major issue in the justice system.
The law provides for the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although trials were subject to long delays. Under the criminal procedure code, defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence, access to a lawyer, and rights against self-incrimination; to be informed promptly of charges; and to be present at their trial. Trials are held before judges or judicial panels; juries are not used. Defendants may confront hostile witnesses and present other witnesses and evidence and may not be compelled to testify. Defendants have a right of appeal to higher courts. The government provides interpretation as necessary into local languages. Observers noted the courts made progress in providing interpretation services during court proceedings, and all courts had at least one interpreter.
Justice-sector NGOs expressed concern that judges did not provide clear information or take the time to explain and read their decisions. Observers also claimed that in many cases judges did not follow the law that provides protections for witnesses. Additionally, the country has no juvenile-justice legislation, leaving many juveniles in the justice system without protections.
The constitution contemplates a Supreme Court, but one has never been established due to staffing and resource limits. The court of appeals carried out Supreme Court functions in the interim.
Mobile courts based in the cities of Dili, Baucau, Covalima, and Oecusse operated in areas that did not have a permanent court. These courts processed only pretrial proceedings and primarily handled cases of domestic and gender-based violence.
For “semipublic” crimes, where the process does not begin unless a victim files a complaint, some citizens utilized traditional (customary) systems of justice that did not necessarily follow due-process standards or provide witness protection but provided convenient and speedy reconciliation proceedings with which the population was comfortable.
The Public Defender’s Office, concentrated in Dili, was too small to meet the need, and many defendants relied on lawyers provided by legal aid organizations. A number of defendants who were assigned public defenders reported they never saw their lawyers, and some justice-sector NGOs noted that public defenders were confused about their duties to the client versus the state and that few viewed their role as client advocates. Public defenders did not have access to transportation to visit clients in detention, so at times they met their clients for the first time in court.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
As there is no separate civil judicial system in the country, civil litigation experienced the same problems encountered in the criminal justice system. No regional human rights body has jurisdiction in the country.
Community concerns regarding evictions and inadequate compensation for government expropriation of land continued during the year.
Although the law prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, civil servants noted a general lack of privacy protections throughout the government, particularly in the health sector.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system promoted freedom of expression, including for the press.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were few government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although the National Language Institute must approve academic research on Tetum and other indigenous languages and regularly did so.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The constitution provides for “freedom to assemble peacefully and without weapons, without a need for prior authorization.” The law establishes guidelines on obtaining permits to hold demonstrations, requires police be notified five days in advance of any demonstration or strike, and establishes setback requirements at some buildings. The power to grant or deny permits is vested in the PNTL, which generally approved requests for demonstrations. During the COVID-19-related state of emergency, several requests to hold demonstrations were denied. Despite the restriction, the PNTL worked with demonstration organizers to provide them alternative means of safely speaking to their supporters and delivering their grievances to the subjects of their protest.
In September, Chief of Defense Force Lere Anan Timur announced his intention to detain Angela Freitas, leader of the new political movement National Resistance Defending Justice and the Constitution, following her and her movement’s efforts to organize a 15-day protest demanding the resignation of the president and challenging the legitimacy of the government. The group had received approval from the PNTL to hold their protest in the west end of Dili, and police officers had been assigned to provide support and security at the protest site. A small contingent of soldiers patrolled the street in front of Freitas’ house, which also served as the political movement’s headquarters, on the evening of September 1, acting on allegations of illegal weapons at the residence. No arrests were made. On September 2, Freitas criticized the general’s actions and announced the postponement of the protest.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government implemented a state of emergency from March to June and again from August through the end of the year. The borders remained largely closed during this period, although the government permitted some entries and exits coordinated with the Ministries of Transport, Health, Interior, and Foreign Affairs.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations on issues related to the provision of protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status; however, the system does not align with international standards. There were concerns that regulations governing asylum and refugee status may preclude genuine refugees from proving their eligibility for such status. For example, persons who wish to apply for asylum have only 72 hours to do so after entering the country. Foreign nationals already present in the country have only 72 hours to initiate the process after the situation in their home country becomes too dangerous for a safe return.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Electoral management bodies administered an early parliamentary election in May 2018. International observers assessed it as free and fair. President Lu-Olo swore in Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak and a partial cabinet in June 2018. International observers similarly assessed national presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017 as free and fair, with only minor, nonsystemic irregularities.
Political Parties and Political Participation: To register, new political parties must obtain 20,000 signatures, which must also include at least 1,000 signatures from each of the 13 municipalities.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Electoral laws require that at least one-third of candidates on party lists be women. Following the 2018 parliamentary elections, women held 26 of the 65 seats in parliament but only eight of 46 ministerial, vice-ministerial, and secretary of state positions in the new government. Of 20 ministers, only the minister of social solidarity and inclusion (concurrently a deputy prime minister), the minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, and the minister of health were women. At the local level, at least three women must serve on all village councils, which generally include 10 to 20 representatives depending on village size. In 2016 local elections, the number of female village chiefs increased from 11 to 21 of the 448 nationwide chief positions. Traditional attitudes, limited networks, high rates of domestic violence, extensive child-care responsibilities, and other barriers constrained greater participation of women at the local and national levels.
The country’s few ethnic and religious minority groups were well integrated into the political system; however, in 2018 Muslim leaders reported discrimination against Muslims joining civil service positions. The number of ethnic minority members of parliament and in other government positions was uncertain, since self-identification of ethnicity was not a common practice.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The penal code provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government faced many problems in implementing the law, and the perception that officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity was widespread. In August the president approved new anticorruption legislation, which parliament had passed in July. The anticorruption commission (CAC) is charged with leading national anticorruption activities and has the authority to refer cases for prosecution; however, the CAC and the Prosecutor’s Office did not routinely cooperate with each other on investigations. Although the CAC is independent, the government controls its budget, making it vulnerable to political pressure. Institutions with the power and the competence to address corruption avoided investigations of politicians, government members, and leaders and veterans of the country’s independence struggle. The government undertook surprise inspections of government-run programs and increased pressure to implement asset-management and transparency systems.
Corruption: During the year the CAC continued investigations on corruption cases; however, there were no corruption-related convictions, sentences, or hearings as of November. Anecdotally, corruption was widespread among government officials. There were accusations of police, including border police, involvement in corruption–most commonly bribery and abuse of power. Allegations of nepotism in government hiring were common. The government developed and implemented several new standard operating procedures, policies, and regulations aimed at increasing transparency and improving customs services.
Financial Disclosure: The new anticorruption law requires that the highest members of government and members of parliament declare their assets to the court of appeals, and high-level public servants must declare their assets to the CAC. Declarations do not have to be made public, however, and the criminal penalties for noncompliance are unclear. Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak made a public asset disclosure in August.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports indicating officials or other agents under the command of the Ministry of Public Security or provincial public security departments arbitrarily or unlawfully killed protesters. There were reports of at least eight deaths in custody; authorities attributed at least three of the deaths to suicide or chronic medical issues and another to a beating by a fellow prisoner. Authorities sometimes harassed and intimidated families who questioned the police determination of cause of death. In a small number of cases, the government held police officials responsible, typically several years after the death. Despite guidance from the Supreme People’s Court to charge police officers responsible for deaths in custody with murder, such officers typically faced lesser charges. Police conducted their own internal affairs investigations to determine whether deaths in custody were justified.
On January 9, a large contingent of armed police officers belonging to the Ministry of Public Security and Hanoi police surrounded Dong Tam village, My Duc District, Hanoi. During the early morning hours, they raided the house of local elder Le Dinh Kinh, who had led the villagers’ years-long resistance against the seizure of 145 acres of agricultural land for use in a new military installation. During the raid police officers and armed villagers clashed violently, leading to the deaths of three police officers and Le Dinh Kinh. Eyewitnesses, including Kinh’s wife, claimed police threw tear gas grenades into the house while the family was asleep and shot Kinh on sight. Human rights activists expressed doubts about the legality of the raid as well as official police reports that Kinh was armed with a hand grenade, noting the 84-year-old was disabled (see also sections 1.c and 1.e.).
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution and law prohibit torture, violence, coercion, corporal punishment, or any form of treatment harming the body and health or the honor and dignity of persons detained or incarcerated. Nonetheless, suspects commonly reported mistreatment and torture by police, plainclothes security officials, and compulsory drug-detention center personnel during arrest, interrogation, and detention. Police, prosecutors, and government oversight agencies seldom investigated specific reports of mistreatment.
Activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials assaulted political prisoners to extract confessions or used other means to induce written confessions, including instructing fellow prisoners to assault them or making promises of better treatment. Abusive treatment was not limited to activists or persons involved in politics. Human rights monitoring groups issued multiple reports of police using excessive force while on duty and investigators allegedly torturing detainees.
One of the Dong Tam villagers who was detained and then released following the January 9 clash with police (see section 1.a.) alleged that Ministry of Public Security interrogators tortured many of the 29 defendants by a variety of methods, including electric shock, cigarette burns to various parts of the body, waterboarding, and other methods that would not leave physical evidence.
According to state media, the Investigation Agency of the Supreme People’s Procuracy initiated criminal proceedings against the police chief of Vinh Tuy local police, Bac Quang District, Ha Giang Province, and two other police officers for their alleged beating of a pretrial detainee. The police chief was detained; the two other officers were held under house arrest pending the completion of the investigation. Impunity in the security forces was a significant problem.
Prison conditions varied substantially by prison and province. In most cases they were austere but generally not life threatening. Insufficient diet and unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to potable water, and poor sanitation remained serious problems.
Physical Conditions: By law pretrial detainees are to be held separately from convicted prisoners. In practice media and activists reported there were cases in which detainees were held in the same cells with convicted prisoners. Authorities generally held men and women separately, with some reported exceptions in local detention centers. Although authorities generally held juveniles in an area separate from adults, on rare occasions authorities reportedly held juveniles in detention with adults for short periods. Authorities sometimes kept children in prison with their mothers until age three, according to a former political prisoner.
Prison officials failed to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence. On May 7, prisoner Le Hoang Quang allegedly beat his cellmate, Nguyen Quang Lap, to death with a baton in Chau Duc District police temporary detention, Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, after an argument.
Some former and serving prisoners and their families reported prisoners received insufficient, poor-quality food. Family members continued to make credible claims prisoners received extra food or other preferential treatment by paying bribes to prison officials. Prisoners had access to basic health care, although there were multiple instances of officials preventing family members from providing prescription medications to prisoners who had no other way of receiving the medication and of prison clinics not reviewing prisoners’ predetention health records.
Some prison authorities refused to allow any items sent to prisoners from outside the prison system, including medication, citing COVID-19-related concerns. For example, Gia Trung Detention Center in Gia Lai Province refused all outside medication while others, such as Detention Center No. 6 in Nghe An Province, allowed medication with prescription.
Authorities placed prisoners in solitary confinement for standard periods of three months. On January 1, the government implemented the Law on the Execution of Criminal Judgements, which calls for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or intersex (LGBTI) prisoners to be detained or imprisoned separately from the general detainee or inmate population. Multiple media outlets reported that the law was effectively implemented.
Administration: According to the law, the National Assembly, people’s councils, and the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF)–an umbrella group that oversees the country’s government-sponsored social organizations–oversee the execution of criminal judgments. There was no active system of prison ombudsmen with whom prisoners could file complaints. The Ministry of Public Security reported that prisoners may file formal complaints with a prosecutor’s office. Since these complaints must first go through the same prison officials who are often the focus of the complaint, however, most observers considered this a flawed process.
Authorities limited prisoners to one family visit of no longer than an hour per month. Family members of prisoners reported prison authorities frequently terminated their visits after 15 to 30 minutes. Family members were generally permitted to provide various items, including money, supplemental food, and bedding, to prisoners.
Family members of current and former prisoners and lawyers reported certain prison authorities restricted or hindered prisoners’ access to publications, including religious texts, despite provisions in the law providing for such access. Le Dinh Luong, for example, did not have access to a Bible, according to his family. While he made formal requests for a Bible in previous years, Luong’s family made only informal, oral requests to detention officials during the year, which went unanswered. Ho Soc Son District police prevented Hue Nhu from receiving a copy of the constitution and other legal texts despite multiple requests, including by her lawyer. Observers also said that, contrary to the law providing for access to clergy, no Catholic prisoner received a visit by clergy during the year.
Independent Monitoring: The Ministry of Public Security, the government entity that manages prisons, did not allow access to international monitors. Local and regional International Committee of the Red Cross officials neither requested nor carried out prison visits during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution states a decision by a court or prosecutor is required for the arrest of any individual, except in the case of a “flagrant offense.” The law allows the government to arrest and detain persons “until the investigation finishes” for particularly serious crimes, including national security cases. Those detained, excepting on political grounds, may question the legality of their detention with the arresting authority, but there is no right for the detainee or a representative to challenge the lawfulness of an arrest before a court. There were numerous cases of authorities arresting or detaining activists or government critics contrary to the law or on spurious grounds. Authorities routinely subjected activists and suspected criminals to de facto house arrest without charge.
By law, police generally require a warrant issued by a prosecutor (the people’s procuracy) to arrest a suspect, although in some cases a decision from a court is required. The criminal code also allows police to “hold an individual” without a warrant in “urgent circumstances,” such as when evidence existed a person was preparing to commit a crime or when police caught a person in the act of committing a crime. Human rights lawyers shared the view that detention without warrants was a common practice. Lawyers and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that, in many cases, police officers “invited” individuals to present themselves at police stations without being given a clear rationale. These individuals might be held for hours and questioned or requested to write or sign reports. Many such cases had nothing to do with political or sensitive circumstances. There were, nonetheless, numerous instances where activists were taken into custody by plainclothes individuals without an arrest warrant.
Police may hold a suspect for 72 hours without an arrest warrant. In such cases a prosecutor must approve or disapprove the arrest within 12 hours of receiving notice from police. In practice, especially in politically motivated cases, these procedures were not applied consistently or strictly.
The law requires video or audio recording of interrogations during the investigation, prosecution, and adjudication of cases. In cases in which video or audio recording is not possible, interrogation is only allowed if the person being interrogated agrees. In practice, however, this was not evenly applied. In multiple criminal trials, such videos were used by the authorities to manipulate the court’s and public’s perception of the suspect and the case, according to human rights activists. During the September trial of 29 Dong Tam villagers (see section 1.a.), the prosecution played multiple video clips in which defendants appeared to confess to the charges brought against them. Legal counsel for the defendants reported on social media that the video misrepresented the defendants, who were forced to confess on video.
By law the people’s procuracy must issue a decision to initiate a formal criminal investigation of a detainee and notify the accused or their legal representative within three days of arrest; otherwise, police must release the suspect. The law allows the people’s procuracy to request the court with jurisdiction over the case to grant two additional three-day extensions for a maximum of nine days’ detention before an investigation begins.
Although the criminal code sets time limits for detention while under investigation, including for “serious” and “particularly serious” crimes (for the latter, an individual may be held for 16 months), the law allows the people’s procuracy to detain an individual “until the investigation finishes” in cases of “particularly serious crimes,” including national security cases. Only after the investigation is completed are suspects formally charged.
While a suspect is detained during investigation, authorities may deny family visits; they routinely denied such visits for those arrested on national security charges or in other politically motivated cases.
The law allows for bail in the form of money or property as a measure to replace temporary detention, but it was seldom granted.
The law requires authorities to inform persons held in custody, accused of a crime, or charged with a crime, of their legal rights, including the right to an attorney within three days of arrest. By law the government is required to assign a lawyer for a criminal defendant if the defendant or their lawful representatives do not seek the assistance of defense counsel in cases where the defendant is charged with offenses punishable by death as the highest penalty as prescribed by the penal code, is a minor or person with physical disabilities, or is deemed mentally incompetent. The government may and did also provide lawyers for certain cases, including cases against persons deemed to have made significant contributions to the country, members of poor or near-poor households, members of ethnic minorities in remote and poor areas, or minors. The government may also provide lawyers in certain cases where defendants or their family include victims of agent orange, elderly or disabled persons, victims of domestic violence, victims of trafficking in persons, or HIV-infected persons.
Although the law affords detainees access to counsel from the time of detention, authorities used bureaucratic delays to deny timely access to legal counsel. In many cases authorities only permitted attorneys to access to their clients or the evidence against them immediately before the case went to trial, denying them adequate time to prepare a defense.
In cases investigated under national security laws, the government routinely used bureaucratic delays to prohibit access by defense lawyers to clients until after officials completed their investigation and formally charged the suspect with a crime.
Detainees have an undefined right to notify family members of their arrest. Although police generally informed families of detainees’ whereabouts, the Ministry of Public Security held a number of blogger and activist detainees suspected of national security violations incommunicado.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly for political activists and individuals protesting land seizures or other injustices, remained a serious problem. Some activists also reported that authorities used routine police interrogations to obtain incriminating information concerning other human rights activists.
Authorities subjected many religious and political activists to varying degrees of arbitrary detention in their residences, in vehicles, at local police stations, at “social protection centers,” or at local government offices. Officials also frequently questioned human rights activists upon their return from overseas trips. Such detentions were most common around and during events that were likely to draw significant public attention.
On May 8, Ho Chi Minh public security reportedly detained activist Phung Thuy without a warrant and interrogated him for hours on his relationship with the independent Liberal Publishing House. According to one activist, officers used violent interrogation techniques to force Thuy to answer officers’ questions.
Pretrial Detention: The allowable time for temporary detention during an investigation varies from three to 16 months, depending on the offense. There were no standard legal or administrative requirements as to when suspects must be brought before a judicial officer. Depending on the seriousness and nature of the offenses, these time limits vary. In cases of particularly serious crimes, including national security cases, the law allows detention “until the completion of the investigation.”
Similarly, the allowable time for adjudication varies between 45 and 120 days. By law a trial must begin within 30 days of the adjudication of charges. The total time for pretrial detention is the sum of all these periods; the maximum pretrial detention is nominally 21 months in cases of “especially serious offenses.” These limits were exceeded with impunity, and police and prosecutors used lengthy pretrial detention to punish or pressure human rights defenders to confess to crimes, activists said. By law authorities must provide justification for detention beyond the initial four months, but there were reports indicating that court officials ignored the failure of police or prosecutors to comply with such laws when adjudicating cases.
The government detained eight members of Hien Phap, an independent civil society group, for 23 months before their official trial began on July 31.
Lengthy pretrial detention was not limited to activists. State-run media reported that in 2018, a total of 230 persons were detained or held in custody beyond the stipulated time limits.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There is no such right under law. Detained individuals may request that the agency responsible review the decision. If an arrest or detention is deemed improper by the agency, the individual may be eligible for compensation.
The law provides for an independent judiciary and lay assessors, but the judiciary was effectively under the control of the CPV, through the Ministry of Public Security. During the year there were credible reports political influence, endemic corruption, bribery, and inefficiency strongly distorted the judicial system. Most, if not all, judges were members of the CPV and were screened by the CPV and local officials during their selection process to determine their suitability for the bench. Judges are reappointed every five years, following review by party officials. The party’s authority was particularly notable in high-profile cases and when authorities charged a person with corruption, challenging or harming the party or state, or both. Defense lawyers routinely complained that, in many cases, it appeared judges made a determination of guilt prior to the trial.
There continued to be credible reports that authorities pressured defense lawyers not to take religious or democracy activists as clients and questioned their motivations for doing so. Authorities also restricted, harassed, arrested, and disbarred human rights attorneys who represented political activists. The penal code required attorneys to violate attorney-client privilege in national security cases or other serious crimes.
On September 14, the trial of 29 Dong Tam commune residents arrested following the January 9 clash (see section 1.a.) concluded. Of the 29 defendants, two were sentenced to death and one to life in prison while two others received sentences of 12 to 16 years for the deaths of three policemen killed during the encounter. The remaining defendants were convicted of “obstructing officers in the performance of their duty” and received lesser sentences. Legal scholars, academics, and human rights activists cited “serious irregularities” with the trial. The court prevented the defendants’ family members from attending the trial, although the family members of the slain police officers were in attendance.
On February 21, an appellate court in Khan Hoa upheld the prison sentence for lawyer Tran Vu Hai and his wife, who were convicted and sentenced in November 2019 to 12 to 15 months of home detention for “tax evasion”. Those charges, filed in July 2019, led the Ministry of Public Security to deny Hai’s request to defend imprisoned activist Truong Duy Nhat, who was allegedly refouled to Vietnam from Thailand in January 2019. They also enabled police to search Hai’s office and confiscate sensitive documents related to his defense of human rights activists, including Truong Duy Nhat.
While the constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, this right was not evenly enforced. The law states that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Defendants’ right to prompt, detailed information about the charges against them was rarely respected. Defendants’ right to a timely trial was ignored with impunity, and although trials generally were open to the public, in sensitive cases judges closed trials or strictly limited attendance.
Authorities generally upheld the right of defendants to be present at their trial. The court sometimes denied suspects the right to their own choice of attorney and assigned one. The criminal code permits defendants to be seated adjacent to their defense attorney, although this was not standard practice. Defendants have the right to communicate with a lawyer if they are on trial for a criminal charge that could result in a 15-year or longer sentence, including capital cases, although they often could not exercise this right. At the September trial of Dong Tam villagers (see section 1.a.), lawyers reported that police initially prevented them from speaking with their clients and only permitted them to do so after multiple requests and a formal petition to the court.
Although the defense has the right to cross-examine witnesses, there were multiple instances in which neither defendants nor their lawyers knew which witnesses would be called, nor were they allowed to cross-examine witnesses or challenge statements against them. In political trials neither defendants nor their attorneys were allowed to examine or review evidence relied upon by the prosecution. A defendant has the right to present a defense, but the law does not expressly state the defendant has the right to call witnesses. Judges presiding over politically sensitive trials often did not permit defense lawyers and defendants to exercise their legal rights.
The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings is Vietnamese, but the state provides interpretation if participants in a criminal procedure use another spoken or written language. The law does not specify whether such services are free of charge.
While elements of the adversarial system were being implemented, courts maintain an inquisitorial system, in which the judge plays the primary role of asking questions and ascertaining facts in a trial. Authorities permitted foreign diplomats to observe three high-profile trials via closed-circuit television, including the appeal of blogger Truong Duy Nhat and the trial of the 29 Dong Tam villagers. Diplomats also observed two regular criminal trials during the year. In most of the trials, defense attorneys were given time to address the court and question their clients, but they could not call witnesses or examine prosecutors’ evidence. In other trials involving individuals charged under national security articles, judges occasionally silenced defense lawyers who were making arguments on behalf of their clients. Convicted persons have the right to at least one appeal.
Prison officials often held political prisoners in small groups separate from the general inmate population and treated them differently. Some political prisoners enjoyed better material conditions but were subject to more psychological harassment. In other cases political prisoners were subject to harassment from prison authorities and other inmates, the latter sometimes at the instigation of officials. In many cases political prisoners’ daily schedules were different from those of the general inmate population and they were not afforded the opportunity to leave their cells for work or interaction with the general prison population. Officials often subjected political prisoners to more extended periods of solitary confinement than the three months given to other prisoners. In January, Ba Sao Prison in Ha Nam reportedly held Phan Kim Khanh and Nguyen Viet Dung in solitary confinement after their protest against prison regulations. Prison authorities barred them from buying additional food at the prison’s shop, thereby restricting them to meals provided by the prison.
Rations appeared to be more limited for political prisoners than others. Former political prisoners reported they received only two small bowls of rice and vegetables daily, often mixed with foreign matter such as insects or stones. Family members of many imprisoned activists who were or became ill, claimed medical treatment was inadequate and resulted in long-term health complications. In June family members of Nguyen Van Duc Do, for example, reportedly filed a petition to the Xuan Loc Prison in Dong Nai Province demanding an end to Do’s inhuman treatment, alleging that prison guards physically assaulted Do, kept him in solitary confinement, and gave him food mixed with human waste.
Prison authorities often held political prisoners far from their homes, making family visits difficult, and routinely did not inform family members of prison transfers. On February 27, Vo Thuong Trung’s wife attempted to visit her husband at a prison in Dong Nai Province and discovered Trung had been transferred to Gia Trung Prison in Gia Lai Province, nearly 300 miles away. In May, Hanoi-based activist Nguyen Tuong Thuy was arrested in Hanoi and transferred to Ho Chi Minh City for detention.
During the year many political prisoners held hunger strikes to protest maltreatment. From March 13 to April 17, Nguyen Nang Tinh was on hunger strike to protest Nghi Kim Prison officials’ refusal to allow him to meet with a Catholic priest, although Tinh was technically ineligible for such a visit while his case remained under appeal. In August, Trinh Ba Tu refused food for more than 20 days to protest mistreatment in prison at Cham Mat Detention Center, Hoa Binh Province.
As in previous years, courts continued to hand down severe sentences to individuals whose activism appeared to be prominent or linked to overseas groups. On March 2, a court in Ho Chi Minh City upheld the sentencing of environmental activists Tran Van Quyen and Nguyen Van Vien to 10 and 11 years in prison, respectively, on charges of “terrorism to oppose (the) people’s administration” due to their alleged membership in the banned overseas prodemocracy group Viet Tan. The two had been detained along with Australian citizen Chau Van Kham, who was also convicted and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and who authorities alleged was a member of an overseas activist group. Among the most frequent charges against activists was “producing, storing, disseminating, or communicating information and documents against the state.” Under this charge at least eight individuals received sentences of up to 11 years’ imprisonment during the year.
In March Radio Free Asia blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who was forcibly returned to Vietnam from Thailand in January 2019 after applying for refugee status with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was tried and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of “abusing his position and power while on duty.” An appeal in August upheld the verdict. In response to Nhat lawyer’s question during the appeal about where and when Nhat was arrested, the prosecutor stated that Nhat was arrested in Hanoi in January 2019. The court refused to address the time gap between Nhat’s apparent refoulement from Thailand in January 2019 and his subsequent appearance in Hanoi in March, ignoring international and domestic calls for transparency related to the circumstances leading to his detention.
In March, Bui Thanh Hieu, an exiled blogger in Germany, announced on Facebook that he would stop blogging because Vietnamese authorities were harassing his family in the country.
The constitution provides that any person illegally arrested and detained, charged with a criminal offense, investigated, prosecuted, brought to trial, or subjected to judgment enforcement illegally has the right to compensation for material and mental damages and restoration of honor. The law provides a mechanism for pursuing a civil action to redress or remedy abuses committed by authorities. Administrative and civil courts heard civil suits under procedures similar to those in criminal cases and using members of the same body of judges and people’s assessors to adjudicate the cases. Administrative and civil courts continued to be vulnerable to corruption and outside influence, lack of independence, and inexperience. Very few victims of government abuse sought or successfully received redress or compensation through the court system.
The government continued to prohibit class action lawsuits against government ministries, thus rendering ineffective joint complaints from land rights petitioners.
By law all land belongs to the government (“all the people of Vietnam”), which granted considerable decision-making authority for land pricing, allocation, and reclamation to local people’s committees and people’s councils, which in turn contributed to unfair business practices and corruption.
There were numerous reports of clashes between local residents and authorities at land expropriation sites during the year. Disputes regarding land expropriation for development projects remained a significant source of public grievance. Many individuals whose land the government forcibly seized protested at government offices for failure to address their complaints. Some coercive land seizures resulted in violence and injury to state officials and residents. There were also reports that development companies hired suspected plainclothes police officers and “thugs” to enforce government seizures by intimidating and threatening residents or breaking into their homes. Authorities arrested and convicted multiple land rights protesters on charges of “resisting persons on duty” or “causing public disorder.”
The law prohibits arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, home, or correspondence, but the government did not consistently protect these rights and at times violated them.
By law security forces need public prosecutorial orders to enter homes forcibly, but Ministry of Public Security officers regularly entered or surveilled homes, particularly of activists, without legal authority. They often intimidated residents with threats of repercussions for failure to allow entry.
On January 3, Van Giang District police of Hung Yen Province reportedly broke into the apartment of Ho Sy Quyet in Ecopark, Hanoi, ransacking the apartment and confiscating personal possessions without a warrant. Local police also took Quyet and his wife to the district police station for questioning for hours, threatening to arrest and prosecute him if he did not cease his engagement in what authorities considered antistate activities. Quyet was one of dozens of individuals who had been harassed by police since late 2019 for distributing publications of Liberal Publishing House, a now-defunct, illegal private publishing house.
Without legal warrants, authorities regularly opened and censored targeted private mail; confiscated packages and letters; and monitored telephone conversations, email, text messages, blogs, and fax transmissions. The government cut telephone lines and interrupted the cellphone and internet service of several political activists and their family members.
The Ministry of Public Security maintained a system of household registration and block wardens to monitor unlawful activity. While this system was less intrusive than in the past, the ministry closely monitored individuals engaged in or suspected of engaging in unauthorized political activities.
FireEye, a foreign-based network security company, reported infringement on the privacy rights of citizens. FireEye wrote that the government had developed considerable cyberespionage capabilities in recent years. The company also documented attacks by a group called OceanLotus, or APT32, on targets including overseas-based Vietnamese journalists and private- and public-sector organizations abroad and in the country itself. While there was no direct link between APT32 and the government, FireEye contended that the personnel details and data accessed from the targeted organizations were of “very little use to any party other than the Vietnamese government.”
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; however, in practice the government did not respect these rights, and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government also continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions to restrict freedom of expression. Such laws establish the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people,” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. The law also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals.”
Freedom of Speech: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders or the party, promoted political pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters, such as human rights, religious freedom, or sovereignty disputes with China.
On three separate occasions in September, Dong Thap Province security officials “invited” Nguyen Thi Tinh, wife of prisoner Nguyen Nang Tinh, to discuss the government’s concerns about her Facebook posts. Tinh told authorities she only shared information about her family, including updates related to her husband’s situation in prison. She reported the security officials told her the government considered her social media posts to be in violation of an administrative decree related to telecommunication and that she could face punishment in the future.
In June, during a scheduled visit to Thanh Hoa Province by a diplomat, security officials intimidated Nguyen Thi Lanh, the wife of imprisoned pastor and prodemocracy activist Nguyen Trung Ton, and Ton’s son, Nguyen Trung Trong Nghia, implying they could face physical harm unless they remained home “until further notice.” Security officials kept the family locked inside the house for several days until the family broke the lock. Local security officials then took Lanh into custody and continued to harass her at a local police station. When Nghia tried to go to the local police station to learn more about Lanh’s status, plainclothes individuals allegedly assaulted him in the presence of public security and traffic police officials.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass media organizations exercised legal authority over all print, broadcast, online, and electronic media, primarily through the Ministry of Information and Communications under the overall guidance of the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission. The law requires editors in chief to be CPV members; many outlets applied this to additional managers as well.
Many nongovernmental entities, however, produced and distributed publications by subcontracting, joint publishing, or buying permits from government or other public publishing entities. State-run media reported private entities produced more than 90 percent of all publications in the country, although outright private ownership or operation of any media outlet or publishing house was prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
Authorities further consolidated government control over media outlets, including requiring them in the future to be affiliated with a government body and severely constraining the number of separate newspapers and magazines that can be published by an organization or in an area. During the year Hanoi city authorities closed six magazines and three newspapers and forcibly merged two newspapers. Authorities in Ho Chi Minh City, with the most vibrant media environment in the country, reorganized 28 media organizations into 19 outlets.
On June 20, the Ministry of Information and Communication demanded the Vietnam Economic Times, a newspaper published by the Vietnam Economic Association, cease operations, effective in January 2021, and revoked the newspaper’s license. On June 26, the ministry licensed the Vietnam Economic Magazine, the new name of the Vietnam Economic Times, which officially suspended its operations on July 15, but no articles were published by either the newspaper or magazine since January. Other publications, such as the popular national online outlet Dan Tri, aligned themselves with ministries to continue to operate.
Authorities intensified a crackdown on members of the Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam, founded to advocate for freedom of expression and the press and for democracy. In November 2019 Ho Chi Minh City Public Security arrested Pham Chi Dung, president of the association, and charged him with antistate propaganda. In May and June, authorities detained and arrested independent journalists Pham Chi Thanh, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan, also members of the association, under similar charges. On June 23, the Investigation Agency of Ho Chi Minh City Public Security, in coordination with Vung Tau public security, summoned independent journalist Chu Vinh Hai for interrogation on his relationship with the journalists’ association.
By law the government may fine journalists and newspapers for failing to cite their sources of information or for using “documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.”
The law allows the government to punish publishers if they publish “untruthful information” in the fields of statistics; atomic energy; management of prices, charges, fees, and invoices; education; civil aviation; vocational training; hydrometeorology; cartography; and health.
The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country continued to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.
The government permitted journalists employed by foreign-based media outlets to operate under significant restrictions. The law, however, requires “live” foreign television programming to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring. Viewers reported obstruction of various commentaries, documentaries, and movies on human rights incidents in the country, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Soviet era, or reports involving trade tensions. Foreign journalists required formal permission to travel outside Hanoi for reporting. When foreign journalists requested access to an area considered sensitive, such as the Northwest or Central Highlands, or to report a story the government might consider sensitive, authorities often either intentionally delayed their response or denied permission to travel.
Major foreign media outlets reported the government delayed or refused to issue visas for reporters who had previously covered sensitive political topics, particularly reporters for the overseas Vietnamese-language press. The government frequently tried to control resident foreign correspondents by threatening to revoke or not renew their visas.
The information ministry may revoke the licenses of foreign publishers; foreign publishers must renew their licenses annually.
The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring meetings and communications of journalists.
Violence and Harassment: There continued to be a significant number of reports of security officials attacking or threatening journalists because of their coverage of sensitive stories. Independent journalists faced restrictions on freedom of movement, other forms of harassment, and physical attacks in, for example, the form of staged motorbike accidents, if they reported on sensitive topics.
Authorities increased harassment of Liberal Publishing House. According to an NGO, public security officials questioned and interrogated nearly 100 individuals for purchasing and reading books printed by the publishing house. An NGO reported that public security detained, interrogated, and tortured Ho Chi Minh City-based activist Vu Huy Hoang for conducting business with the publishing house. On October 6, authorities arrested prominent writer and activist Pham Doan Trang for “antistate activities” hours after the government held a meeting with foreign officials on human rights. She was accused of “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the State.” In July, Trang announced on her Facebook page that she had resigned from Liberal Publishing House and called on public security officials to stop harassing all associates of the publisher. According to Trang, all members of the publishing house went into hiding to maintain publishing activities and avoid harassment.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information and Communications and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly with media to dictate or censor a story.
Propaganda officials forced editors of major media outlets to meet with them regularly to discuss what topics were off-limits for reporting. More often, pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest, enabled the party and government to control media content. The government punished journalists for failing to self-censor, including by revoking journalists’ press credentials.
National Security: The law allows significant fines to be levied against journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests or for disseminating information considered to distort history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases these “violations” may lead to criminal proceedings.
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and ordered journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, imposed criminal sentences for online expression, and monitored private online communications without legal authority. The limited number of licensed internet service providers were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. On July 7, a court in Lam Dong Province convicted Facebook user Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong of antistate propaganda and sentenced him to eight years in prison. According to state-sponsored media reporting, Nguyen created a Facebook account to post and share numerous articles with “antistate” content on Facebook that reportedly “defamed the party, state, and President Ho Chi Minh.”
The government sometimes blocked websites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups in addition to the websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. State-owned internet service providers routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoted political reform.
An administrative regulation compels owners of all websites and social networking sites to cooperate with the Ministry of Information and Communications to prevent the spread of “bad, toxic news.”
Another rule requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. The government also requires such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval. Such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate government requests for information and must store posted information for 90 days and certain metadata for up to two years.
The government forbids direct access to the internet through foreign internet service providers and requires them to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security has long required “internet agents,” including cybercafes, to register the personal information of their customers, store records of internet sites visited by customers, and participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored the internet selectively.
The government continued to pressure firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including antistate materials. In October 2019 the Ministry of Information and Communications announced Google removed nearly 8,200 video clips; YouTube blocked 19 YouTube channels; and Facebook blocked nearly 2,500 links, 249 fake accounts, and 249 links that defamed the CPV and government. The Ministry of Information and Communications significantly increased pressure on social media platforms to comply with a higher number of political-speech take-down requests, especially for posts critical of senior CPV officials. Authorities reportedly throttled Facebook’s local servers early in the year, significantly slowing down its local traffic, until the company agreed to significantly increase compliance with government censorship requests.
Force 47, a special unit in the Ministry of National Defense, monitored the internet for misinformation and antistate propaganda.
Authorities also suppressed online political expression by direct action against bloggers, such as arrests, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of computers and cell phones from activists and their family members. The government continued to use national security and other vague provisions of the penal code against activists who peacefully expressed their political views online. Political dissidents and bloggers reported the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service. On June 13, Ho Chi Minh City public security arrested Huynh Anh Khoa and Nguyen Dang Thuong on charges of “abusing democratic freedom” for organizing a Facebook discussion group called Economic-Political Discussion that attracted nearly 50,000 Facebook users, according to an NGO.
Social network and blog users were required to provide their full name, national identification number, and address before creating an account. In-country website and social network operators must allow authorities to inspect local servers upon request and must have a mechanism to remove prohibited content within three hours of detection or notification by authorities.
On April 15, a government decree went into effect imposing significant fines for using social networks to “provide and spread misinformation.” This includes using social networks to distribute maps inaccurately representing the country’s sovereignty and popularizing fake news to disturb the public. The decree was issued as part of the government’s strategy to contain what it deemed to be misinformation, antigovernment sentiment, and defamation on social networks.
In September the Ministry of Information and Communication fined four newspapers a total of 72 million dong ($3,100) for printing misinformation on the arrest and prosecution of former city officials, on Ho Chi Minh, and on a major infrastructure project.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country could discuss nonpolitical topics widely and freely in classes, but government observers regularly attended classes taught by both foreigners and nationals. The government continued to require international and domestic organizations to obtain advance approval for conferences involving international sponsorship or participation. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous.
The government continued to prohibit any public criticism of the CPV and state policy, including by independent scientific and technical organizations, even when the criticism was for a purely academic audience.
The government exerted influence over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities by requiring numerous authorizations.
Many activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials threatened university leaders if they did not expel activists engaged in peaceful activities from their respective universities and pressured them and their family members not to attend certain workshops. Multiple activists also reported academic institutions refused to allow them or their children to graduate due to their advocacy of human rights.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws and regulations require persons wishing to gather in a group to apply for a permit, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive matters appeared to require permits. The government generally did not permit any demonstrations that could be perceived as political. The law permits security forces to detain individuals gathering or protesting outside of courthouses during trials. Persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference so long as the gathering was not perceived as political or a threat to the state.
The Ministry of Public Security and local police routinely prevented activists from peacefully assembling. There were numerous reports of police dispersing gatherings of environmental activists, land rights advocates, human rights defenders, bloggers and independent journalists, and former political prisoners. For example, on July 18, local police in Cam Vinh commune of Ha Tinh Province dispersed a gathering of Falun Gong members at a private residence.
Police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those demonstrating against the government.
The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government severely restricted the establishment of associations involved in what the government considered “sensitive” activities such as political, religious and labor issues. The country’s legal and regulatory framework includes mechanisms particularly aimed at restricting the freedom of NGOs, including religious organizations, to organize and act. The government generally prohibited the establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF.
Laws and regulations governing NGOs restrict their ability to engage in policy advocacy or conduct research outside of state-sanctioned topics and prohibit organizations focused on social science and technology from operating in fields such as economic policy, public policy, political issues, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also did not permit them to distribute policy advocacy positions publicly.
The law requires religious groups to register with authorities and to obtain official approval of their activities. Some unregistered religious groups such as the Vietnam Baptist Convention and independent Pentecostal groups reported government interference.
According to some recognized groups and others attempting to register, implementation of the law varied from province to province. Some registered organizations, including governance, women’s rights, and environment-focused NGOs, reported increased scrutiny of their activities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed limits on the movement of individuals, especially those convicted under national security or related charges or outspoken critics of the government.
In-country Movement: Several political activists on probation or under house arrest, along with others not facing such legal restrictions, were officially restricted in their movements. Authorities continued to monitor and selectively restrict the movement of many prominent activists and religious leaders, including Nguyen Dan Que, Pham Ba Hai, Nguyen Hong Quang, Thich Khong Tanh, Tran Ngoc Suong, Le Cong Cau, and Duong Thi Tan. Authorities continued to prevent activists from travelling by preventing them from leaving their houses during events that might draw great public attention. Several activists reported authorities had confiscated their national identification cards, preventing them from traveling domestically by air or conducting routine administrative matters.
During the September trial of 29 villagers from Dong Tam (see section 1.a.), security forces prevented Dong Tam residents, family members of the defendants, and prominent activists from leaving their homes. Villagers alleged government security forces actively stymied their efforts to travel to Hanoi to attend the trial.
Religious leaders were required to specify geographical areas where they would be preaching. Some reported that authorities told them that preaching outside of the approved areas was illegal, although enforcement was inconsistent.
Government restrictions required citizens and resident foreigners to obtain a permit to visit border areas, defense facilities, industrial zones involved in national defense, areas of “national strategic storage,” and “works of extreme importance for political, economic, cultural, and social purposes.”
Citizens (or their hosts) must register with local police when staying overnight in any location outside of their own homes; the government appeared to enforce these requirements more strictly in some Central and Northern Highlands districts. Foreign passport holders must also register to stay in private homes, although there were no known cases of local authorities refusing to allow foreign visitors to stay with friends or family. There were multiple reports of police using the excuse of “checking on residency registration” to intimidate and harass activists and prevent them from traveling outside of their place of registration (see sections 1.d. and 1.f.).
Authorities did not strictly enforce residency laws for the general population, and migration from rural areas to cities continued unabated. Moving without permission, however, hampered persons from obtaining legal residence permits, public education, and health-care benefits.
Foreign Travel: Prospective emigrants occasionally encountered difficulties obtaining a passport or exit permission, and authorities regularly confiscated passports of activists and government critics, at times indefinitely. There were multiple reports of individuals crossing the land borders with Laos or Cambodia illegally because they were unable to obtain passports or exit permission; in some cases, this included persons wanted for crimes and political or other activism.
The Ministry of Public Security continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against certain activists and religious leaders. Authorities banned and prevented dozens of individuals from traveling overseas, withheld their passports on vague charges, or refused to issue passports to certain activists or religious leaders without clear explanation; activists believed that international travel authorization was denied to reduce those activists’ opportunities to speak out against the Vietnamese government. Authorities also refused to issue passports to the family members of certain activists.
In May authorities refused without explanation to renew the passport of Catholic priest Nguyen Van Toan. Father Toan, who had a record of making critical statements about the government and participating in protests, later said he found a notation stating his passport was not renewed because he “conducted activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”
The government generally did not cooperate with UNHCR and other organizations regarding treatment of internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
According to 2019 UNHCR statistics, there were approximately 30,600 recognized stateless persons and persons of undetermined nationality in the country. This was a substantial increase from the estimated 11,000 stateless persons acknowledged in 2016, due to increased government effort to identify such persons. The bulk of this population are ethnic H’mong living in border areas, but it also included a number of women who lost their citizenship after marrying a foreigner but then lost their foreign citizenship, primarily because of divorce. In the past, the government naturalized stateless ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Cambodia, but there was no information on naturalization efforts or options for those identified as stateless persons during the year.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Citizens could not choose their government through free, fair, and periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by a secret ballot that guaranteed free expression and the will of the people. Although the constitution provides the ability to elect representatives to the National Assembly, people’s councils, and other state agencies directly, constitutional and legal provisions established a monopoly on political power for the CPV, and the CPV oversaw all elections. National Assembly elections take place once every five years by secret ballot. The constitution sets the voting age at 18 and allows candidates to run for election to the National Assembly or people’s council at 21. The last National Assembly election took place in 2016; the next one was scheduled for 2021.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The 2016 National Assembly elections allowed limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates but were neither free nor fair, and the government did not allow NGO monitoring. The CPV’s Fatherland Front chose and vetted all candidates through an opaque, multistage process. CPV candidates won 475 of the 496 seats. The remaining 21 were non-CPV candidates unaffiliated with any party. There were no candidates from a party other than the CPV.
According to the government, 99 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 election, a figure activists and international observers considered improbably high. Voters may cast ballots by proxy, and officials charged local authorities with ensuring that all eligible voters cast ballots by organizing group voting and verifying that all voters within their jurisdiction had voted. There were numerous reports throughout the country that election officials stuffed ballot boxes to create the illusion of high turnout.
The law allows citizens to “self-nominate” as National Assembly candidates and submit applications for the VFF election-vetting process. In the months leading up to the 2016 National Assembly elections, an informal coalition of legal reformers, academics, activists, and human rights defenders attempted to register as self-nominated, non-CPV “activist independent” candidates. In contrast to the party’s candidates, these candidates actively used Facebook and social media to advertise their policy platforms. VFF officials refused, however, to qualify any of these candidates, and authorities instructed official media to criticize some of them. According to press reports, the VFF allowed two self-nominated candidates on final ballots, but both individuals were party members.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Political opposition movements and other political parties are illegal. Although the constitution states that “all Party organizations and members of the CPV operate within the framework of the constitution and the laws,” the CPV politburo in fact functioned as the supreme national decision-making body, although technically it reported to the CPV Central Committee.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. The law sets a target of 35 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly and provincial people’s councils to be women and 18 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly to be from minority groups. The 132 women in the National Assembly comprise 27 percent of the body. The 86 ethnic minority delegates comprise 18 percent of the assembly.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. This included existing and retired officials from the politburo, central party, military, and public security services.
Corruption: The lack of public consultation on land-use plans and government land compensation frameworks was the primary driver of corrupt land transfers, the major type of corruption. Corruption in financial, banking, natural resource mining, and public investment sectors also remained significant political and social problems.
The Ministry of Public Security reported it processed 123 corruption cases in the first six months of the year. Media outlets reported that in the first six months of the year, the CPV punished 186 party members for corruption. Among those punished were former ministers, former deputy ministers, and provincial leaders.
On September 20, the people’s court of Ho Chi Minh City sentenced retired vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, Nguyen Thanh Tai, to eight years in prison for “violating regulations on management and use of state assets” for allowing a group of investors to acquire a state-owned land lot in 2007 without a proper bidding process.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires all state officials, commissioned officers of police and military forces, career military personnel, holders of positions as deputy manager and above in public service agencies and state-owned enterprises, and state enterprise financial management officers to disclose to their agency their income and assets within 10 days from the date of designation or employment. Any change of 300 million dong ($15,000) or greater requires an additional declaration. Directors of provincial departments and higher ranks or persons in charge of official management, management of public funds, public property or public investment, or who have influence over the operation of other entities as prescribed by the government are required to submit annual disclosures; nominees to be National Assembly and people’s councils’ delegates are required to do so in line with the voting law. The law provides for reprimand, warning, suspension, or removal for noncompliance.