(New York) – Vietnamese authorities should drop criminal charges and release a United States citizen and Vietnamese nationals arrested for their peaceful participation in protests in Ho Chi Minh City, Human Rights Watch said today. William Anh Nguyen is scheduled to go on trial for “disrupting public order” under penal code article 318 on July 20, 2018. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.

Video footage of the June 10 protest shows men in civilian clothes and surgical masks, believed to be undercover police, physically restraining Nguyen and dragging him away from the protest. His head is covered in blood. Other protesters said that they were beaten by plainclothes officers during the protests.

“William Anh Nguyen and others face unfair trials and long sentences before Communist Party-controlled courts for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and expression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Vietnamese authorities should immediately drop the criminal charges, release Nguyen and others arrested, and respect the fundamental rights that Vietnam has agreed to uphold.”

Nguyen, 32, is a Houston-born Yale graduate who studied for a master’s in public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. He flew to Ho Chi Minh City on June 9 on a tourist visa. At the time, there were online calls for protests in Vietnam against two draft laws being considered by Vietnam’s National Assembly: an act to establish special economic zones that would permit foreign investors to lease land for up to 99 years, and an act severely restricting freedom of expression on the internet in the name of cybersecurity.

State media cited the prosecutor’s indictment that claimed Nguyen “joined the stream of people, videoed, and took photos to post on [his] personal Facebook and Twitter.” He was also accused of urging people to break down police fences, “climbing up a pickup truck to call people to climb over vehicles to continue their march to the center of the city,” and moving “motorbikes parked on the roadside to clear paths for protesters.” State media reported that “afterward, William Anh Nguyen was taken by the authorities to a headquarters.” On June 14, Vietnamese government spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang claimed the authorities did not use force against Nguyen.

State television aired a clip a week after Nguyen’s arrest in which he admitted to violating Vietnamese law and promised that he would not participate in activities that oppose the government. According to local media, Nguyen stated, “I understand that my acts violated [the law].… I regret that I caused trouble for people heading to the airport. I blocked traffic and caused trouble to my family and friends. I will not join any anti-state activities anymore.”

The authorities have not put forward evidence that Nguyen engaged in acts of violence.

“Human Rights Watch is very concerned that Nguyen’s public statement violated his due process rights and may have been coerced,” Robertson said. “Televised ‘confessions’ of this kind are a shameful tactic used by oppressive governments to intimidate critical voices into silence and flaunt their disregard for fundamental rights.”

Vietnam does not have a specific law on public demonstrations, so authorities have used other statutes to prosecute peaceful protesters. The government recently punished a major online newspaper that reported on the need for a law on protests, showing its sensitivity to the issue. On July 16, Director General Luu Dinh Phuc of the Authority of Press under the Ministry of Information and Communications issued a decision to fine and suspend Tuoi Tre Online for three months for “providing untruthful information that caused serious consequence.” The newspaper published an article on June 19 titled “Vietnamese President agrees on issuing Demonstration Law” that “quoted President Tran Dai Quang as saying he agreed with the need for a Demonstration Law, and would report this to the National Assembly.”

Physical assaults by unknown men in civilian clothes against demonstrators has become a common practice in Vietnam. In June 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report, “No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam,” that highlighted 36 incidents between January 2015 and April 2017 in which rights campaigners and bloggers were beaten, often resulting in serious injuries. Many victims reported that beatings occurred in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to intervene.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is endorsed by United Nations member countries including Vietnam, is generally considered reflective of customary international law. It states that everyone, not just citizens, has the right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly.

“Time and time again, Vietnamese authorities use excessive force to crack down on peaceful protesters and then cynically claim that it was all the protesters’ fault,” Robertson said. “International donors and trade partners should recognize that Vietnam’s manipulation of the rule of law does not just apply to human rights cases, but affects all aspects of life in the country.”