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‘Chilling’ crackdown on dissent in Vietnam ahead of key congress | Vietnam News

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As Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party gears up for its most important meeting in years, its leadership has presided over an intensified crackdown on dissent, according to rights groups, activists and data collated by Reuters news agency.

A record number of political prisoners, longer jail terms, and increased harassment of activists in recent years have contributed to the crackdown ahead of this week’s Communist Party congress, a gathering to determine national leadership and policy that takes place once every five years.

The crackdown has left some international human rights groups and legislators questioning whether Vietnam has breached the spirit of trade agreements with Western countries – accords that have helped propel the country to a position of economic strength in Southeast Asia.

“I have been summoned by the police several times since December 9, 2020,” said Nguyen Quang A, a veteran activist in Hanoi, declining to detail the circumstances saying he was subject to an ongoing investigation. He told Reuters Vietnam’s security ministry had in recent weeks rounded up other government critics without saying why, citing his contacts with activists.

“They [the police] summon them and find reasons to convict them under those very fuzzy articles of criminal law. It completely violates the law but they use it very regularly,” said Quang A. “I’ve told them they can’t shut me up.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which handles inquiries from foreign media, did not respond to Reuters’s request for comment on activist detentions.

‘Anti-state’

Despite reforms and increasing openness to social change, the Communist Party of Vietnam, led by 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong, tolerates little criticism and controls domestic media tightly.

Vietnam drew international condemnation this month when it sentenced three freelance journalists known for criticism of the government to between 11 and 15 years in prison, finding them guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda.

Journalists Pham Chi Dung, right, Le Huu Minh Tuan, centre, and Nguyen Tuong Thuy, left, stand between police during their trial at a court in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam January 5, 2021 [VNA/Handout via Reuters]

The country’s constitution says it protects “freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations”.

In reality, public criticism of the party is not tolerated, and groups which promote democratisation are targeted by the authorities in a battle playing out online on platforms like Facebook, Vietnam’s premier platform for both e-commerce and dissent.

A Reuters tally based on state media reports found 280 people were arrested for “anti-state” activities over the five years since the last party congress: 260 were convicted, many being sentenced to more than 10 years in jail. In the five years leading up to the 2016 congress, there were 68 arrests and 58 convictions.

‘Force 47’

Last year, Amnesty International said it had recorded the most “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam since it began publishing figures in 1996 – 170, close to double the 97 recorded in 2018. Of the 170, some 70 were arrested for online activism, Amnesty said.

In late 2017, Vietnam unveiled a 10,000-strong military cyber-unit, Force 47, to counter what it said were “wrong” views on the internet. According to rights groups, the unit also recruits volunteers online to target dissidents and activists.

Reuters reviewed dozens of posts across multiple Facebook groups and pages from December and January that claimed links with Force 47. Many attacked prominent activists, including Quang A, accused by one group of creating anti-state propaganda.

A woman wearing a traditional conical hat walks past a poster for the upcoming 13th national congress of Vietnam Communist Party on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 18, 2021 [Kham/Reuters]

Some group moderators were dressed in military uniform in their profile photos while others ran pages for official local branches of Communist Party organisations.

Last November, Vietnam threatened to shut Facebook down if it did not toughen rules on local political content on the platform.

Facebook’s local servers were taken offline by the government earlier last year until it agreed to significantly increase policing of “anti-state” posts by local users, a request with which Facebook previously said it complied.

A Facebook spokesman said the company faced “additional pressure” from Vietnam to restrict content last year.

‘Driver’s seat’

For some, the crackdown has a connection with fluctuations in global trade ties with Vietnam.

“During the [former US President Barack] Obama administration, pressure on rights connected with TPP [trade] negotiations helped the cause of human rights activists and political dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The early visit of Prime Minister [Nguyen Xuan] Phuc in 2017 to the Trump White House saw human rights completely dropped from the agenda,” he said.

Robertson said trade tensions with China have also left Vietnam “in the driver’s seat” as US and European Union companies look for alternative supply chains, helping the Vietnamese economy thrive.

“The EU had an important opportunity to make real changes through the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement,” said Robertson, referring to a pact that has been a boon for Vietnam. Instead, he said, the EU “fell short, settling for vague promises … instead of substantive changes”.

EU officials did not immediately respond to Reuters’s request for comment.

After the jailing of the three journalists earlier this month, the United Nations human rights office said: “Coming just weeks ahead [of the party congress], the convictions and long sentences are not only a blatant suppression of independent journalism but also a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those willing to criticise the government.”

The United States described the sentences as the “latest in a troubling and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution”.



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Study suggests strong link between obesity and COVID death rate | Coronavirus pandemic News

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COVID deaths about 10 times higher in countries where half or more of the population is overweight, new study finds.

The death rate from COVID-19 is about 10 times higher in countries where half or more of the population is overweight, according to a report by the World Obesity Federation.

The report released on Wednesday titled COVID-19 and Obesity: The 2021 Atlas has shown that being overweight is a “highly significant predictor” of developing complications from contracting COVID-19 such as hospitalisation, intensive care and mechanical ventilation, as well as being a “predictor of death” from the disease.

The researchers say that countries in which fewer than 40 percent of people are overweight had fewer coronavirus-linked deaths, whereas countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy, where more than 50 percent of the population is overweight, had a much higher death rate.

“An overweight population is an unhealthy population, and a pandemic waiting to happen,” the report said.

The report flagged that in the UK, 73.7 percent of 10,465 patients who were critically ill with confirmed COVID-19 were overweight or obese.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has the lowest level of overweight people in the population and the world’s second lowest COVID death rate.

It also highlighted that overweight and obesity could be risk factors for dangerous outcomes in people under 60 years old, with those who have a body mass index (BMI) between 30 and 34 twice as likely to be admitted to ICU compared with the ones with a BMI under 30.

“Reducing one major risk factor, overweight, would have resulted in far less stress on health services and reduced the need to protect those services from being overwhelmed,” the report found, suggesting that people who are are obese or overweight should be prioritised for testing and vaccination.

A survey last month by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the obesity rate in the United States was 42 percent, higher than the 40 percent found in a 2015-16 study.

COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 people in the US so far and 2.56 million across the world.

Information collected over the past two decades has also shown that excess bodyweight is linked to worse outcomes in MERS, H1N1 influenza and other influenza-related infections.



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