HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnamese human rights bloggers and activists are being beaten and intimidated, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday, as it urged the Communist government to end attacks and hold those responsible accountable.
The New York-based rights group described 36 incidents in which unknown men in civilian clothes beat rights campaigners and bloggers between January 2015 and April 2017, often resulting in serious injuries.
Despite sweeping reforms in Vietnam's economy and increasing openness towards social change, the Communist Party retains tight media censorship and zero tolerance for criticism.
With information tightly controlled by the government, some critics take to web blogs to air their grievances. Social media sites, including Facebook, are also hugely popular.
The rights group said many victims reported beatings occurred in the presence of uniformed police who did not intervene. It is common for Vietnamese police to push activists into vans or buses to prevent them protesting on the streets.
"The Vietnamese government should understand that tolerance of these violent attacks will lead to lawlessness and chaos instead of the social order and stability it says it is striving for," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The group said in January at least 112 bloggers and activists were serving prison sentences in Vietnam, down from at least 130 at the end of 2015.
The rights group said the decrease coincided with a rise in recorded beatings during the period in which Vietnam was negotiating a trade agreement with the United States.
"Vietnam's human rights record was a major focus of the negotiations," it said in a statement.
"It is possible that the government of Vietnam wanted to show a decrease in political arrests and trials but still pursued measures to crack down on dissent."
The rights group said 35 out of 36 cases featured in their report found no identified and prosecuted perpetrator despite the fact that victims often reported their beating to the police.
Vietnam rejected the report saying the government acted in accordance with international human rights treaties.
"The report is based on false information and lack of objectivity about the situation in Vietnam," foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a statement sent to Reuters.
The report follows a meeting this month between U.S. President Donald Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the first White House talks with a Southeast Asian leader since Trump took office in January.
Though a joint written statement included a brief section on the "importance of protecting and promoting human rights", Phuc's visit was dominated by the burgeoning economic relationship between the two former wartime foes, with the signing of business deals worth billions of dollars.
Trump and his aides have mostly publicly sidestepped human rights issues in their dealings with autocratic governments, including Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally Trump visited last month where political parties and protests are banned.
The Trump administration has made clear that its "America First" approach prioritizes economic and security interests.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Michael Perry)