…….. says The Economist.
Kerry, the decorated Vietnam War vet-turned-peacenik [and presumptive designee for Secretary of State] , is hugely popular in Vietnam, widely praised for the key role he and John McCain played in the 1990s in settling the POW-MIA issue and re-establishing diplomatic and trade relations. Not only does he enjoy excellent direct relations with Vietnam’s communist leadership, he is personally famous. ….This would put Mr Kerry in an excellent position to lobby for small but meaningful changes in Vietnamese policy, such as, say, freeing the human-rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan (above).
By arresting one of Vietnam’s best-known dissidents and bloggers, the authorities are “raising the stakes in the Communist-run nation’s crackdown on Internet criticism of its one-party rule and potentially worsening the country’s relations with the United States and other important trading partners,” one observer suggests.
Quan’s arrest is the latest step in a “political vendetta” waged by Vietnamese authorities, said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. “[They] have been pursuing a political vendetta against Le Quoc Quan for several years, and now we see a tax evasion charge coming out of nowhere, just as in the Dieu Cay case previously,” Robertson told RFA.
Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“He writes a popular blog exposing human rights abuses and other issues not covered by the state media,” the BBC notes:
In an interview with the Associated Press news agency in September, he said that he and his family and staff had received frequent warnings from the authorities. But he pledged to carry on speaking out against the government and in support of multi-party democracy and freedom of speech.
With Quan’s arrest, the Vietnamese police are “escalating a crackdown on those who speak out against Vietnam’s one-party, authoritarian rule,” reports suggest:
In August this year Quan was beaten by police in an attack which prompted Human Rights Watch to call for a full investigation. In early December Quan told AFP that his family was under “much pressure… It is terrible”, with both his brother and a female cousin being held in detention.
In addition to his blogs, Quan was heavily involved in a string of anti-China demonstrations last year over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
State media reported that Quan was charged with tax evasion – an allegation his wife, Nguyen Thi Thu Hien, denies.
“I think my husband was arrested because of his political views as he often calls for democracy and a multiparty political system,” Ms. Hien said.
“Let’s be clear: Le Quoc Quan is not in jail because of tax evasion,” says The Economist:
This is his third stint in jail. …He’s in jail now because Vietnam is engaged in a bout of anti-blogger disciplinary activity, clearly related to the country’s lackluster economic performance, corruption scandals and power struggles in the intertwined world of government-business cronyism, and rising popular dissatisfaction.
Quan’s detention follows the sentencing of several other bloggers as Vietnam’s Communist authorities “step up their rigorous policing of the Internet,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s James Hookway.
“Officials appear to worry about the organizing power of the Web, and have sporadically blocked social-networking sites such as FacebookFB +4.96% and tried popularize their own, state-controlled alternatives instead. They have good reason to be concerned,” he notes:
As penetration rates quickly rise —more than a third of Vietnamese are now online, a higher percentage than in Indonesia or Thailand—dissidents increasingly are going online to discuss what they view as the country’s failings in its rush to become a modern, industrialized economy.
In recent months, several prominent blogs have emerged to criticize the lavish spending habits and lifestyles of top Communist Party officials, embarrassing the government and prompting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to attempt to muzzle online criticism.
So far, Vietnamese authorities have focused on legal threats to quash dissent. Technology analysts say the country lacks the sophisticated Internet monitoring and blocking technology employed by China. Hanoi instead resorts to making an example of dissident bloggers, and is working on new laws that would force Vietnamese to use their real names online—a move that Internet-driven businesses worry will stifle the growth of online commerce.
“Like other Vietnamese exercising their rights to free expression, many of the country’s growing corps of bloggers are increasingly threatened, assaulted, or even jailed for peacefully expressing their views,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We are honored to amplify the voices the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party wants to prevent from participating in public discussions of Vietnam’s many social and political problems,” Adams said.
“Vietnam has a lot of dissidents in jail,” The Economist notes. “America is not going to be able to get Vietnam to stop arresting dissidents; the Communist Party is not interested in political suicide. Nor will it be able to force Vietnam to allow its citizens to do whatever they want on the internet.”
But Vietnam is dependent on American export markets and on American military and diplomatic backing in its struggle against China over maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea. That allows America to make it clear that Vietnam will pay a limited price, in embarrassment and ebbing support, if it goes beyond certain informal lines in its oppression of dissidents. John Kerry, by virtue of his personal qualities, is in a position to draw those lines somewhat more expansively than a different secretary of state would be, one who was not considered by Vietnam to be a hero of Vietnamese-American reconciliation. He should use that position to try and get Le Quoc Quan and some of his fellow democracy activists out of jail.