Vietnam steps up 'chilling' crackdown on dissent ahead of key Communist Party congress

* 170 political prisoners in Vietnam, most of them since 1996 - amnesty
* The crackdown has increased; longer, tougher prison terms - dates
* Vietnamese military heads anti-dissident cyber unit Force 47
* 'Cool Effect' - United States Human Rights Bureau
* Comes amid growing muscles for Vietnam in global trade
By James Pearson
HANOI, Jan 19 (Reuters) - As the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party prepares for its most important meeting in years, its leadership has conducted an intense crackdown on dissenting opinions, according to research groups, activists and data.
A record number of political prisoners, longer prison terms, and increased harassment of activists in recent years have all contributed to the riot before this week's Communist Party Convention, a five-year rally to determine national leadership and politics.
Once enforced, some international human rights groups and lawmakers have questioned whether Vietnam has broken the spirit of trade deals with Western countries - deals that have helped bring 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, who declined to detail the circumstances under which he was the subject of an ongoing investigation. He told Reuters that the Vietnamese Ministry of Security had rounded up other government critics in the past few weeks without saying why, citing its contacts with activists.
"They (the police) call them and find reasons to convict them under these very vague articles of criminal law. It is completely against the law, but they use it very regularly," said Quang A. "I told them that they can't. " shut up. "
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which handles inquiries from foreign media, did not respond to Reuters' request to comment on the detention of activists.
'ANTI-STATE'
Despite reforms and increasing openness to social change, the Vietnamese Communist Party, led by 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong, tolerates little criticism and tightly controls the domestic media.
Vietnam was internationally sentenced this month when it sentenced three freelance journalists known for criticizing the government to 11-15 years in prison and found them guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda.
The country's constitution states that it "protects freedom of expression and expression, freedom of the press, access to information, gathering, forming associations and holding demonstrations".
In reality, public criticism of the party will not be tolerated and groups promoting democratization are being targeted by the authorities in an online battle on platforms such as Facebook, Vietnam's leading platform for e-commerce and dissent.
A Reuters report, based on state media reports, showed that in the five years since the last congress, 280 people were arrested for "subversive" activities: 260 were convicted, many sentenced to more than ten years in prison. There were 68 arrests and 58 convictions in the five years prior to the 2016 Congress.
'FORCE 47'
Last year Amnesty International said it had registered the highest number of "prisoners of conscience" in Vietnam since 1996 - 170 figures were released - almost twice as many as in 2018. Of the 170, around 70 were detained for online activism, Amnesty said.
At the end of 2017, Vietnam introduced a 10,000-strong military cyber unit, Force 47, to counter the supposedly "wrong" views on the Internet. According to rights groups, the unit also recruits volunteers online to target dissidents and activists.
Reuters checked dozens of posts on several Facebook groups and pages alleging links to Force 47 as of December and January. Many attacked prominent activists, including Nguyen Quang A, who was accused by a group of anti-state propaganda.
Some group moderators were dressed in military uniforms in their profile photos, while others were conducting pages for official local branches of communist party organizations.
Last November, Vietnam threatened to shut down Facebook if the rules for local political content on the platform were not tightened.
Facebook's local servers had been taken offline by the government earlier last year until it agreed to significantly step up monitoring of "anti-state" postings by local users, a request that Facebook had previously complied with.
A Facebook spokesman said the company had been exposed to "additional pressure" from Vietnam last year to restrict content.
'DRIVER'S SEAT'
For some, the approach is related to fluctuations in global trade relations with Vietnam.
"During the Obama (former US President Barack) administration, rights pressures related to TPP (trade negotiations) negotiations helped the cause of human rights defenders and political dissidents," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
"During Prime Minister (Nguyen Xuan) Phuc's early visit to Trump's White House in 2017, human rights were completely removed 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 to help the Vietnamese economy thrive.
"The EU had an important opportunity to make real change through the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement," said Robertson, referring to a pact that has been a boon to Vietnam. Instead, the EU "came up short and was satisfied with vague promises ... instead of substantial changes".
EU officials did not immediately respond to Reuters' request for comment.
After the three journalists were arrested earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Bureau said: "Just a few weeks before the convention, the convictions and long sentences are not only an overt repression of independent journalism, but also a clear attempt to create a deterrent effect among those who do are ready to criticize the government. "
The United States called the verdicts "the latest in a worrying and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens for exercising rights under the Vietnamese Constitution." (Reporting by James Pearson; Additional reporting by Fanny Potkin in Singapore; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)
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