Australia holds its annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam this week amid concern that western countries are easing pressure on Vietnam over its continuing crackdown on government critics.
Human Rights Watch called on the Australian delegation to call for significant and solid improvements during the talks in Hanoi.
It said that Australia should call for the release all political prisoners, an end to harassment and violence against activists, respect for freedom of religion, and an end to punishment for boat people returnees.
Vietnam has stepped up actions against political activists and human rights campaigners since appointing a new leadership at the beginning of the year. More activists and bloggers have been sentenced to jail terms this year, while others have been beaten in the streets and demonstrations have been broken up.
Analysts say that Vietnam appears ever less concerned about representations from western governments on political freedom.
In December last year, police arrested the human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, as he left home to attend a meeting with a visiting EU delegation. Vietnam ignored all representations on his behalf and continues to hold him without trial.
Police also prevented leading activists from attending a meeting with President Obama in May in another display of defiance against increasingly ineffectual foreign pressure on rights and freedoms.
Some analysts suspect western countries are less inclined to challenge Vietnam on such sensitive domestic issues at a time when Hanoi’s strategic clout is on the rise, given heightened tensions with China.
“Peaceful bloggers and activists face violence in Vietnam. In July alone, at least 11 rights campaigners, including La Viet Dung and To Oanh, were assaulted and injured by men in civilian clothes who appeared to be acting as agents of the authorities,” said a statement released by Human Rights Watch.
“Vietnamese bloggers and activists face daily harassment, intimidation, violence, and imprisonment – even the simple act of meeting a diplomat entails some level of risk for activists in Vietnam,” the report said.
HRW also raised the case of four people sentenced to jail for attempting to flee to Australia, and assisting others to do so. Their convictions were recently upheld on appeal.
They were convicted despite assurances to the Australian government, which returned them to Vietnam, that they would not face prosecution for fleeing their country.
Unlike the US, the UK and Sweden, Australia does not publish an annual global human rights report.
HRW is urging the Australian government to at least make public the content of its talks in Hanoi.