As Vietnam hosted its largest ever diplomatic gathering yesterday, dissidents said security forces had locked down the communist nation's pro-democracy movement with intimidation and violence.
The one-party regime running what is being hailed as Asia's next tiger economy has welcomed US President George W. Bush and leaders from China, Russia, Japan and across the APEC group.
But while the world has praised Vietnam's recent economic progress, human rights advocates and Vietnamese exile groups have condemned the Hanoi leadership for being stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to civil liberties.
"I was beaten several times by the police on Friday," said prominent dissident Pham Hong Son, a medical doctor freed in August after more than four years in jail on espionage charges for his pro-democracy Internet writings.
He said that security forces, who had stepped up surveillance around his Hanoi home in the lead-up to the summit, bundled him into a police van, took him to a station and assaulted him, before releasing him late in the evening.
"Mentally I am fine, but physically I am not. My arms, my neck and my shoulders are very sore," he said, speaking with reporters by telephone.
"I will continue to do what I want to do and what I have done so far," he vowed.
"I am ready to keep fighting for democracy in Vietnam," he added.
Son is one of several dissidents who have been harassed by a regime eager to keep them silent while some 10,000 APEC delegates and journalists are in town, say Vietnamese exile groups in the US, France and Australia.
Vietnam's security forces, both uniformed and in plain clothes, have surrounded dissidents' homes and put up signs that say "No Foreigners" and "No Pictures," said the Paris-based Action for Democracy in Vietnam.
"We are living in an unbearable atmosphere," Son's wife, Vu Thuy Ha, said on Friday. "I am being followed. People are being stopped from visiting, including family members."
Activists have also reported arrests this month in Ho Chi Minh City of members of the banned United Workers-Farmers Organization, and the committal of farmers' rights activist and lawyer Bui Thi Kim Thanh to a mental asylum for treatment.
Ahead of the Bush visit, the regime has moved to ease international concerns about human rights at a time when Washington is moving to fully normalize trade ties with Vietnam, which is joining the WTO this year.
Vietnam last week freed Thuong Nguyen Foshee, a dissident with US citizenship who had been held along with six other activists for more than a year, charged with terrorist activities for attempting to broadcast anti-governmental radio messages in the country.
Washington announced on Monday it had taken Vietnam off its blacklist of the world's worst offenders in repressing religious freedom.
But rights groups such as Amnesty International say hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain in Vietnam's jails -- a charge the regime denies, saying all the inmates are criminals.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on Friday many of Vietnam's dissidents had been harassed for expressing their political views online or in underground newspapers.
"If the leaders attending the APEC summit, particularly George Bush, do not express themselves clearly on the serious failings in Vietnam in respecting freedom of expression, it would be an historic error," said RSF.