Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam imposed serious restrictions on freedom of expression and the press over the last year, with all three countries also holding political prisoners and interfering with the rights of citizens to peacefully protest, according to an annual State Department report released on Tuesday.
Cases of arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, and torture in police custody were also reported during the year, the State Department said in its annual report to the U.S. Congress on the human rights record of countries around the world.
In Laos, the ruling party’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications issued instructions in August warning social media users against posting content or comments criticizing the country’s government, and “articles or comments on articles critical of the government suddenly disappeared from social media sites,” according to the report.
Lack of accountability in cases of abuse by police or other officials remained a problem in Laos during the year, the State Department said.
“[And] while the government prosecuted officials for corruption, there were no prosecutions of punishments for officials who committed other abuses, and police and security forces committed human rights abuses with impunity.”
No new cases of forced disappearance were reported during the year, but no progress was made in uncovering the fate of Sombath Somphone, a prominent Lao civil society leader who was abducted in 2012 after what appeared to be “an orchestrated stop of his vehicle by traffic police in Vientiane.”
Opposition figures jailed
Notable human rights abuses reported in Cambodia during the year during the year included torture and degrading punishment at government hands, unjustified or arbitrary arrests, and “severe restrictions on political participation,” with at least 40 political prisoners or detainees held in the country as of August, the State Department said.
Twenty-three of these were officials or supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by Cambodia’s ruling party-compliant Supreme Court in November 2017, two months after the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha.
More than 80 CNRP supporters and activists arrested in 2019 were meanwhile released on bail during the year, but still faced charges and possible re-arrest, the State Department said.
Government control of Cambodia’s judiciary saw the country’s Supreme Court on Oct. 27 reject an appeal by former Radio Free Asia reporters Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, allowing an investigation into charges of espionage against them to proceed, according to the report.
“NGOs and observers argued that the case was politically motivated and pointed to the prolonged trial and confiscation of the journalists’ passports as proof of government intimidation of media,” the State Department said.
And though prepublication censorship of Cambodian media is forbidden by law, the government “used other means to censor media, most notably through its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party],” according to the report.
“Private media admitted to practicing self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal.”
Significant, ongoing abuses
In Vietnam, significant abuses continued through the year, the State Department said.
Problems included arbitrary arrests, detentions, and killings by the government; “serious restrictions” on free expression, the press, and the internet; and the holding of political prisoners in the country’s jails, according to the report.
Restrictions on political participation and a lack of independence of the judiciary were also seen, the State Department said, adding, “The government occasionally took corrective action, including prosecutions against officials who violated the law, but police officers and state officials frequently acted with impunity.”
Ministry of Public Security officials reportedly assaulted political prisoners to extract confessions or encouraged fellow prisoners to attack them, and human rights monitoring groups said police regularly used excessive force while on duty, with investigators often torturing detainees.
The State Department noted that on Sept. 14, the trial of 29 residents of the Dong Tam commune—the scene of a violent Jan. 9 clash between armed police and commune residents over the government seizure of farmland for military use—ended with convictions, with one Dong Tam resident saying later the 29 had been tortured in custody.
Legal scholars, activists, and rights activists later noted “serious irregularities” in the conduct of the trial, which ended with two villagers sentenced to death and others handed lengthy terms in prison.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent meanwhile deteriorated sharply during the year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party Congress in January 2021.
In March, Truong Duy Nhat—an RFA blogger who had been taken back to Vietnam by force from Thailand after applying for U.N. refugee status the year before—was tried and sentenced to a 10-year prison term on charges related to an alleged land-fraud case.
And in May and June, independent journalists Pham Chi Thanh, Nguyen Tuong Tuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan were first detained and then arrested on charges of propagandizing against the state, the State Department said.
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