The European Union has been urged to hold Vietnam to account over escalating attacks on dissidents as the two sides sit down for their annual human rights dialogue.
The EU and Vietnam concluded negotiations for a free trade deal this month, but Brussels has been accused of neglecting human rights abuses in its rush to improve ties with Hanoi.
Activists in Vietnam and abroad are urging European countries to use their leverage with Hanoi to demand more respect for freedom of expression and a halt to a wave of attacks on government critics.
“The EU should tell the Vietnamese government that they won’t fall for the trick of replacing political arrests with political beatings,” said the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, in a submission to the European Commission.
“Vietnam should understand that resorting to violence will simply make the government look like thugs to the rest of the world.”
Plainclothes agents have launched a series of violent attacks on prominent activists in Vietnam in recent weeks.
Lawyers, labour rights campaigners, bloggers and human rights campaigners have all been attacked in the street by groups of men who are believed to have been hired by police to carry out pre-planned assaults.
Analysts suspect that Vietnam has refrained from high profile trials of government critics this year for fear of derailing major trade negotiations with both the EU and the United States.
On paper at least, the Communist authorities appear to have made major concessions: agreeing, for example, to allow independent trade unions under the terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreed with the United States and ten other countries in October.
Human rights activists suspect the government is now resorting to physical, extra-legal, attacks to intimidate dissidents without attracting too much criticism from overseas.
The EU required a dialogue on human rights as part of improving relations with Vietnam in 2012, but has tended to focus on improvements in Vietnam’s legal system and its adherence to international conventions, as a way to encourage a more open society and the rule of law.
It has also expressed concern about restrictions on freedom of expression and the media.
Activists say such an approach is too easily brushed aside by a state that seems intent on silencing its critics and crushing any attempt at organised opposition. They also condemn its failure to conduct a human rights impact assessment.
HRW said the EU should demand concrete progress in specific areas and called for the outcome of the talks in Hanoi to be made public.
It called on the EU to demand an end to politically motivated trials, the release of political prisoners, guarantees of freedom of association and labour rights, and religious freedom.
“The EU should use this opportunity to make it loud and clear to Vietnam that friendly trade relations will be accompanied by increasing demands on human rights,” said Mr Adams.
The Vietnamese government revealed in November that it had dealt with 2,680 cases involving what it called “violations of national security” over the last three years.
It said that more than 60 illegal human rights and democracy groups had been established.