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 onto 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.

Human Rights Watch said in January at least 112 bloggers and activists are serving prison sentences in Vietnam, down from at least 130 prisoners by end-2015.

The rights group said the decrease coincided with a recent 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 report their beating to the police.

The report follows a meeting earlier 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 his "America First" approach prioritizes economic and security interests.

By Matt Spetalnick - Reuters - June 18, 2017

Vietnam dissidents beaten, harassed by 'thugs': rights group

Plainclothes 'thugs' suspected of having links to Vietnam's government have attacked dozens of dissidents since 2015 in a bid to silence critics in the one-party state, Human Rights Watch and activists said.

Freedom of expression is severely restricted in communist Vietnam, where independent media is banned and dissidents are routinely thrown in jail.

The government also has a long history of harassing bloggers and activists, with awareness of violent attacks growing in recent years as dissidents turn to social media to share accounts of bloody wounds and bruised limbs.

In a new report Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described 36 incidents of physical assault on dissidents by men in civilian clothing across Vietnam between January 2015 and April 2017.

"While the precise links between the thugs and the government are usually impossible to pin down, in a tightly controlled police state there is little or no doubt that they are aligned with and serving at the behest of state security services," the report said.

In many cases, the violence took place publicly in the presence of uniformed police officers who did not intervene, it added.

"The fact that thugs abducted activists in broad daylight, forced them into vans, and beat them demonstrates the impunity with which activists are persecuted," said HRW Asia director Brad Adams.

The US State Department and other rights groups such as Amnesty International have previously reported harassment and abuse by plainclothes police.

The Vietnam government did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Dissident La Viet Dung told AFP he was attacked by six men in July 2016 after playing a football match with other activists in Hanoi.

He was smashed in the face with a brick, and still bears a scar above his eye today.

"The attacks on me and others came from plainclothes men," said the 42-year-old software developer, who continues to face surveillance by authorities.

Fellow activist Pham Doan Trang, 38, said she has faced harassment at the hands of plainclothes police several times, including being physically assaulted at a protest in April 2015.

Activists also reported being punched, beaten with metal tubes or dragged into vans and abandoned in deserted areas, HRW noted.

Because the attackers are unidentified, victims say they have no legal recourse if they are harassed.

The rights watchdog called on international donors and trade partners to demand an end to the abuse in Vietnam, a leading recipient of foreign aid.

One of the fastest growing economies in the region, it has also attracted heaps of private foreign investment in recent years.

But moves to liberalise its economy have not been accompanied by a loosening of civil liberties.

Agence France Presse - June 19, 2017