WASHINGTON (CN) – On the eve of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to the White House next week, members of Congress called Thursday for President Donald Trump to speak out against deteriorating human-rights conditions in Vietnam.
Nguyen and Trump are expected to discuss regional cooperation and bilateral relations, but experts testifying before the House this afternoon said it is past due for officials to condemn Vietnam’s increasing restrictions on free expression, state control of the judiciary and media, torture of political prisoners, and ongoing harassment of activists.
One case to draw the attention of human-rights advocates was the May 4, 2017, death in police custody of Nguyen Huu Tan, a Hao Hao Buddhist arrested just a day earlier on charges of disseminating anti-state literature.
Vietnamese officials reported Tan’s death a suicide, saying he lured investigators out of the interrogation room by requesting a cigarette, then dug around in the investigator’s briefcase for a letter opener, which he used to cut his own throat.
“Within three minutes, the investigator returned to the room, but Tan was in shock due to blood loss and he died shortly after,” Vinh Long provincial vice director Pham Van Nga told the official Thanh Nien news, as quoted by Radio Free Asia.
Nguyen Dinh Thang, the president of a Vietnamese-American community organization called Boat People, related Tan’s death Thursday to the House subcommittee in written testimony.
“If that story were to be believed, then the Vietnamese authorities must have displayed uncanny prescience: They had already ordered the coffin before Tan’s suicide,” Thang’s testimony says.
Though Tan’s family is pushing for an investigation, Thang said Vietnamese authorities have threatened to arrest Tan’s surviving brothers unless they back down.
Authorities denied the family’s request for an autopsy, Thang said, and demanded that they not invite neighbors or other family members to the funeral.
Tan’s sister, Phuong Nguyen, traveled to Capitol Hill today from her home in Savannah, Georgia.
She approached the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Chris Smith, as the hearing let out, dropping to her knees in an emotional display.
Smith, who organized the hearing, kneeled down to comfort her. When he stood up, tears brimmed in the New Jersey Republican’s eyes.
“It is bad and getting worse by the day,” Smith told reporters about the status of human rights abuses in Vietnam. “We’re appealing to the president and the vice president, and Secretary Tillerson, to take seriously that they have a moral obligation to raise these cases.”
Smith called on President Trump to be “very, very assertive,” and raise individual cases of people persecuted by the Vietnamese government because of religious or political beliefs.
Invoking the legacy of a conservative icon, Smith recalled how President Ronald Reagan risked a confrontation with a super power when he met with political prisoners on a trip to Moscow in the former Soviet Union.
Trump’s action here would even show up his predecessor, the congressman added, saying President Barack Obama missed his own chance to help free Vietnamese political prisoners.
“There is an opportunity,” Smith said. “And of course we await whether or not the president will be what I hope he will be: very strong and disciplined when he talks about human rights and when he talks to leaders.”
Smith argued that the law exists now for Trump to deny human-rights abusers and their family entry to the United States. Improved trade and security cooperation with the U.S. should be predicated on how well or poorly nations treat their own citizens, he added.
“We stand in solidarity with the oppressed, not the oppressor,” Smith said. “And the oppressor is the prime minister and the government of Vietnam, and the people of Vietnam deserve better than what they’re getting from their government.”
Smith expressed high hopes for the Trump administration’s willingness to take on human-rights abusers.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meanwhile indicated recently that an “America First” foreign policy won’t necessarily be driven by American values.
In a speech to State Department employees on May 3, Tillerson said that economic and national-security interests would drive foreign policy.
“If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” Tillerson had said.
Moreover, President Trump has shown a fondness for strong-man leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.
During an April 29 phone call with Duterte, Trump praised him for doing “an unbelievable job” fighting the country’s drug war, which has included extrajudicial killings of suspects.
Smith meanwhile balked at the notion that the new administration had relegated American values to the backseat, a charge he pointed at the Obama administration instead.
“Human rights were put not just in the backseat, but outside the car,” Smith said of President Obama’s foreign-policy efforts.
Smith said he would like the president to have lists of names of political prisoners that he can present to world leaders, including Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, to demand their release.
Pointing to the congressional record of Vice President Mike Pence, Smith said Trump’s running mate can also be counted on as a human-rights advocate.
“I hope equally that the president will be a strong voice and a very effective one on behalf of the people of Vietnam, and others suffering – dissidents, bloggers, journalists, religious freedom advocates all over the world,” Smith said.
The State Department classifies Vietnam as an authoritarian country that maintains tight control over the judiciary and the media. Religious freedom is limited, with a new draft law on belief and religion drawing particular concern from human-rights advocates.
Human Rights Watch says the law’s requirement for religious groups to register with the government leads to intrusive surveillance. Members of religious groups the state does not officially recognize are sometimes arrested, tried and convicted for undermining national unity.
In other cases, the Vietnamese government forces people to renounce their faith.
The country doesn’t fare much better on freedom of expression.
During a nine-month period in 2016, Vietnamese authorities tried and convicted 19 bloggers, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. A Vietnamese court sentenced prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh to a five-year prison sentence in March that year for running an independent website.
Assaults and police brutality against human-rights advocates are also a problem, along with torture in the country’s jails.