Vietnam: Criminalisation and ill-treatment of activists persists as government marks one year on the Human Rights Council
The state of civic space in Vietnam is still rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Among ongoing concerns documented are systematic attempts to silence human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, including their jailing under national security laws, restrictions on their freedom of movement and torture and ill-treatment in detention. There are also strict controls on the media, online censorship and controls on social media as well as ongoing restrictions on peaceful protests.
Nearly one year on since Vietnam was elected to the UN Human Rights Council where they made pledges to “continue the efforts devoted to better enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in the country, the state of civic freedoms remains dire as the authorities use various laws to target activists.
In recent months, the government has continued to criminalise and jail human rights defenders including environmental activists, minority rights activists and academics while political prisoners have been ill-treated in prison. Bloggers and online activists continue to be targeted while there are proposals to increase restrictions on and control of the online space.
Activist jailed for six years for trying to start new political party
Another arrest: Phan Son Tung, 38, was arrested today in Hanoi for suspected “spreading anti-state information and material” on social media including YouTube and Facebook. Wonder what’s behind this new wave of arrests? pic.twitter.com/7Mkvotjds6— Nga Pham (@ngahpham) September 9, 2022
A court sentenced activist Phan Son Tung to six years in prison in July 2023 for advocating the formation of an opposition to the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam.
Tung, 39, was arrested in August 2022 on ‘anti-state propaganda’ charges for calling for the formation of the Prosperous Vietnam Party, which 'would work toward eliminating inequality in political power by removing the communist party leadership'. Tung was also charged for demanding that citizens 'have the freedom to establish associations and political organisations'.
According to the indictment, Phan Son Tung created and managed three YouTube channels, namely “For a prosperous Vietnam”, Phan Son Tung and Son Tung TV, and a Facebook page under the name David Phan. He had posted around 1,000 video clips on these channels, generating more than 148 million views with 530,000 followers.
The indictment also accused him of creating and disseminating 16 video clips with ‘fabricated and confusion-creating content’, six of which contained information ‘promoting psychological warfare’. Another 17 pieces of content allegedly ‘’distorted, slandered or insulted the prestige of organisations or the honour and dignity of individuals’.
Former director of think tank jailed for five years
On Wednesday, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security said it was probing Nguyen Son Lo, 74, for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ after he submitted a series of recommendations on improving the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam.https://t.co/iRRbSXxZsT— Radio Free Asia (@RadioFreeAsia) August 1, 2022
In July 2023, Nguyen Son Lo, 74, former director of SENA (Southeast and North Asia) Institute of Research and Development, was sentenced to three years in prison for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ (Article 331) and another two years for ‘abusing official position while conducting government business’ (Article 356). It appears that Lo’s conviction is an attempt to silence anti-corruption voices.
According to The Vietnamese, the Vietnam People’s Procuracy accused the SENA director of having distributed five documents, consisting of more than 1,000 pages, and three complaints containing content that ‘infringes upon the interests of the state and the legitimate rights of other organisations and individuals.’ Lo is alleged to have composed the documents, designed their cover pages, and then emailed them to the staff of SENA to be printed and sent by post to 529 people.
Police arrest activists from Khmer Krom minority
On 31st July 2023, Radio Free Asia reported that three members of the Khmer Krom minority group who were suspected of distributing books about indigenous people’s rights were arrested in the Mekong Delta region.
One of the three men was To Hoang Chuong of Tra Vinh province. The other two men arrested were Danh Minh Quang of Soc Trang province and Thach Cuong of Tra Vinh province. Police in both provinces told local media that local residents had reported that the men had been handing out copies of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The three men have been charged with ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ under Article 331 of the Penal Code, a statute used by the authorities to silence those speaking out for human rights.
As previously documented, the 1.3-million strong Khmer Krom - ethnic Khmer who live in what was historically southeastern Cambodia, but now controlled by Vietnam - face serious restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, information and movement in Vietnam, despite being recognised as one of 53 ethnic minorities in the country. The Vietnamese government has banned Khmer Krom human rights publications and tightly controls the practice of Theravada Buddhism by the minority group, which sees the religion as a foundation of their distinct culture and ethnic identity.
Activist who headed petition drives in coastal Ha Tinh province arrested
On 23rd August 2023, Hoang Van Luan, an activist who has organised numerous petition drives in coastal Ha Tinh province, was arrested under Article 331 for ‘abusing democratic freedoms.’
Since 2018, Luan has led petition drives for 18 groups on issues presented to officials at the village, district and provincial levels, as well as at central government offices in Hanoi. In 2019, police in Hanoi’s Ha Dong district imposed an administration penalty with a warning against Luan, saying his group of petitioners was disrupting social order.
In August 2023, the official People’s Police Newspaper ran a photo of Luan and other petitioners who urged authorities to complete a promised water supply project to improve the lives of residents in the Vung Ang Economic Zone in Ky Anh district. The Vung Ang zone was the site of a devastating toxic waste spill in 2016. The spill by Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group’s steel plant killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen jobless in four coastal provinces, including Ha Tinh.
Political prisoners assaulted
There have been reports of assaults against political prisoners in detention.
Dang Dinh Bach and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc confronted in cell -— The 88 Project (@The88Project) September 2, 2023
“My husband’s life is at risk in prison. He has faced a retaliatory punishment for speaking out strongly for the rights of fellow political prisoners in Prison No. 6, Nghe An” said Bach’s wife.https://t.co/FyQIO7GJ9R pic.twitter.com/7mzLUfPsPR
Political prisoner Dang Dinh Bach was assaulted by policemen on 31st August 2023 after telling his family he’d been threatened by other inmates.
Dang Dinh Bach is a lawyer and director of the environmental group, the Center for Legal Studies & Policy for Sustainable Development. He was arrested in July 2021 and later sentenced to five years in prison for tax evasion. According to his wife, who met with him, he suffered cuts on the wrist and hand and had a bruise on the back of his neck.
A group of six human rights experts sent a joint letter to the government in May 2023, expressing their concern that Dang Dinh Bach and his family were being subjected to repression and harassment by the authorities.
Another political prisoner, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, reported a similar experience. Thuc, 57, has been imprisoned since 2009 and is serving a 16-year prison sentence for his activities promoting democracy and human rights. RFA reported on 1st September 2023 that, according to his family, someone with a knife threatened him.
Political prisoners in Vietnam face poor detention conditions, denial of medical care, ill-treatment and torture in custody. In some cases, poor detention conditions and ill-treatment have been fatal.
Environmental defender sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion
As news breaks that Hoang Thi Minh Hong has been formally sentenced to 3 years in prison under false charges of tax evasion, Hong’s colleagues and friends at https://t.co/mDUH6Nt64J express our deep sadness and continued, unwavering support.— 350 dot org (@350) September 28, 2023
Hoang Thi Minh Hong, a prominent environmental rights defender and founder and director of the now dissolved environmental rights organisation Change VN, was convicted and sentenced in September 2023.
According to The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT), on 28th September 2023, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court sentenced Hong to three years in prison and a fine of 100 million dong (USD 4,100) on charges of ‘tax evasion’ (Article 200 of Vietnam’s 2015 Criminal Code) linked to Change VN between 2012 and 2022. Hong admitted to the charges against her and had already repaid the state 3.5 billion dong (USD 145,000) in return for leniency. After the trial, Hong was remanded to T30 Prison, where she has been arbitrarily detained since she was indicted in June 2023.
OMCT noted that this sentence is part of a wider crackdown against land and environmental rights defenders in Vietnam, with authorities using politically-motivated ‘tax evasion’ charges against them in order to curtail legitimate and peaceful activities to protect the environment and combat climate change.
Since 2021, in addition to Hoang Thi Minh Hong, five other land and environmental rights defenders have been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned on ‘tax evasion’ charges: Mai Phan Loi and Nguy Thi Khanh, both granted early release in May and September 2023, respectively; Duong Hung Bach served a two-year and-three-months prison sentences imposed in August 2022; Dang Dinh Bach is serving a five-year prison sentence imposed in January 2022 and Hoang Ngoc Giao was arrested in December 2022, and is currently detained awaiting trial.
Environmental activist detained for ‘appropriating documents’
Vietnam detains the director of an independent energy policy think tank, the sixth person working on environmental issues taken into custody in the past two years.— UCA News (@UCANews) September 24, 2023
Read more… https://t.co/nxD8CrA8L0
Another environmental activist was detained in September 2023 and could face charges of ‘appropriating documents of agencies and organisations.’
Green energy expert Ngo Thi To Nhien would be the sixth environmental activist to face charges in Vietnam in the last two years. Nhien was detained on 15th September 2023 by the Hanoi police. Her arrest came just days after a visit to Hanoi by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Nhien has worked as a researcher for the World Bank and USAID and is the executive director for the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, an independent think tank that is studying the planned transition of the national energy system away from the use of fossil fuels.
Project 88’s co-director Ben Swanton said that Nhien “has more than 20 years working experience, and her professional activities focus on energy and environmental economics, energy modeling, energy policy, and assessment of low carbon energy technologies. Nhien’s detention is significant as it signals that research on energy policy is now off limits.”
Missing blogger in detention
The family of #blogger Duong Van Thai was finally informed that he is in police custody and will be charged with spreading “anti-state propaganda.” Thai had been living in Thailand when he was allegedly abducted by Vn operatives on April 13. Read more: https://t.co/1bjG9U2TTw pic.twitter.com/EuRllSNyFv— The 88 Project (@The88Project) July 27, 2023
In July 2023, RFA reported that the authorities had arrested Duong Van Thai, a blogger and YouTuber who mysteriously went missing in Bangkok, Thailand, in April 2023.
In a letter sent to the family, Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security confirmed the arrest, saying he was in Vietnam’s custody and was charged with creating ‘propaganda against the state’ in violation of Article 117 of the penal code, a vaguely written law that rights organisations have said is often used to silence dissent.
According to the document, Thai had “collected information and documents to edit and write articles, recorded video clips with illegal content and distributed them on the Internet, violating Article 117 of the Penal Code."
As previously documented, Duong Van Thai was allegedly abducted by Vietnamese security agents while living in exile in Thailand. Thai was reported missing on 13th April 2023, and was last seen on camera when he left his home. The 41-year-old political dissident fled Vietnam in 2018, fearing his criticisms of the Communist Party and government leaders on social media could attract the authorities’ attention and persecution. He was granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Bangkok.
Former health teacher arrested for ‘anti-state propaganda’
Authorities detained a former health teacher, Duong Tuan Ngoc, in July 2023 for posts he made on social media about education, health and social issues that criticised the government.
Ngoc, 38, was once a nutrition teacher in the southern province of Lam Dong. According to RFA, the Lam Dong police summoned him on 10th July 2023, and he was detained the next day. The police said the detention is for an investigation under Article 117 on charges of anti-state propaganda in connection with videos he posted to Facebook and YouTube.
Proposals to increase restrictions and control of the online space
In August 2023, it was reported that the government has drafted rules to work with internet service providers (ISPs) to kick people offline if they share content deemed illegal. The move threatens to throttle web access further in a country where an estimated 1,000 websites, from those of the BBC to Freedom House, are already blocked.
The proposed regulation would expand on Vietnam's current rules that require social media companies like TikTok and Facebook to block unfavorable posts. The information ministry is collecting feedback on the regulation, intended to replace current rules known as Decree 72 and Decree 27.
Another concern is the proposal that stipulates that social media accounts need to be verified with a person’s real name and phone number to be able to post, comment, livestream or engage in other forms of online interaction. If this draft is accepted, the identifying information of all Vietnamese citizens will be attached to them at all times whenever they step into an online space.
Access Now and other human rights groups have noted that the identity verification rule is a direct and substantial threat to the enjoyment of rights to privacy, freedom of expression and information, and non-discrimination of all social media users in Vietnam.