Protests against toxic spill continue despite persecution of environmental activists

Peaceful assembly

Protests around the April 2016 toxic spill by Formosa Plastics Group, a Taiwanese steel corporation, have continued, despite the arrests of and use of excessive force against protesters and activists. The spill, Vietnam’s largest environmental disaster to date, resulted in the death of an estimated 115 tons of fish, which led to job losses for fisheries and tourism industry workers

In January 2018, an estimated 100 fishermen and local residents organised a three-day-long protest in central Vietnam’s Quang Binh Province demanding timely and adequate compensation for loss of livelihood caused by the spill.

Formosa acknowledged it was responsible for the release of the chemicals from its massive steel plant and the company voluntarily paid 500 million USD to clean up the affected area and compensate those affected by the spill. However, the slow and uneven payout of the funds by the Vietnamese government has prompted ongoing protests.

On 6th February 2018, environmental activist Hoang Duc Bình was sentenced to 14 years in prison for criticising the Formosa disaster - one of the harshest sentences ever delivered to a Vietnamese activist. He was convicted of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties” and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” (Articles 330 and 331 of Vietnam’s 2015 Criminal Code). His co-defendant, Nguyen Nam Phong, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for allegedly refusing to obey orders of public officials while driving to a protest.

In February 2018, four UN experts called for the release of individuals jailed for writing about and reacting to the toxic spill. To that end, Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur for human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, stated that:

“Imprisoning bloggers and activists for their legitimate work raising public awareness on environmental and public health concerns is unacceptable...we call on the authorities to release Hoang Duc Binh and Nguyen Nam Phong who were detained following their efforts to raise awareness and ensure accountability in relation to the spill of the Formosa Steel plant. Authorities must ensure that Viet Nam’s rapid economic expansion does not come at the expense of human rights, in particular those of local communities and workers”.

Previously, on 20th December 2017 five activists who were protesting against the Formosa plant in Ho Chi Minh City were arrested. According to witnesses, the police and civil defence force also beat at least 20 demonstrators. Four unknown men also reportedly took away social media activist Moc Lam by taxi after beating and pushing her onto the ground


Vietnam’s ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists, religious activists, human rights defenders and online bloggers has only persisted. Individuals have been accused of vaguely-defined national security crimes, in particular, under Article 88 of the Penal Code for allegedly "conducting propaganda against the State".

Arrests and conviction of activists

Activist and blogger Pham Doan Trang went into hiding after she was interrogated by security officials for over ten hours on 24th February 2018. She was questioned about a textbook she recently published as well as her news articles and blog posts on topics ranging from the environment, freedom of religion and online civil society. After the interrogation, she was told that she would be on house arrest as security officials cut electricity and internet access to her residence. Her current whereabouts remain unknown and there are fears she has been detained. Previously, in November 2017 she was detained after meeting with the EU delegation, as documented in the previous update.

Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative from the Committee to Protect Journalists, has declared that:

"Vietnamese authorities should immediately cease and desist their harassment of journalist Pham Doan Trang...Vietnam will never be viewed as a credible international actor as long as it continues this type of persecution of the press".

On 6th February 2018, Vuong Van Tha, a Buddhist hermit and religious activist, was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for "spreading propaganda against the state" under Article 88 of the Penal Code. His son, Vuong Thanh Thuan, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment and his two nephews each received six years in jail. They were arrested in May 2017 for flying the flag of the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam. The flag is often used by political activists in Vietnam who oppose the Communist-controlled government in Hanoi.

On 1st February 2018, medical doctor Ho Hai was sentenced to four years imprisonment with an additional two years of probation. He was accused of posting articles online that allegedly defamed state leaders and called for a boycott of the election of the People’s Committees at the provincial, district and communal level in May 2016. He was also convicted of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the Penal Code

On 31st January 2018, three activists Vu Quang Thuan, Nguyen Van Dien and Tran Hoang Phuc were convicted and sentenced in a one-day summary trial for “conducting anti-state propaganda”. They were charged with producing and disseminating video clips which allegedly defame the ruling Communist Party. Vu Quang Thuan was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison and five years of probation, while Nguyen Van Dien was given six years and six months  and four years of probation. Tran Hoang Phuc Phuc received six years imprisonment and four years of probation.

Teacher and pro-democracy activist Vu Hung was arrested on 4th January 2018 and charged under Article 134 of the 2015 Criminal Code (“intentionally inflicting injury on or causing harm to the health of other persons”). He has actively participated in peaceful demonstrations against the Formosa steel plant toxic waste spill in April 2016. After participating in a meeting of the unregistered Chu Van An Teachers Association, he was detained and allegedly beaten by security forces near his private residence in Ha Dong district. He is currently being held in a temporary detention centre with the Thanh Xuan district police.

Protestant pastor Doan Van Dien was arrested at his home in Dong Nai’s Xuan Loc district on 17th December 2017 for allegedly “distributing anti-state materials online”. He was arrested without a warrant and his family does not know when he will be released. His son, Doan Huy Chuong, had previously been sentenced with his father to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly “spreading propaganda against the State” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Court appeal rejected

Prominent Catholic activist and blogger Nguyen Van Oai’s appeal of his five-year sentence was rejected by the courts on 15th January 2018. Oai was sentenced in September 2017 under Article 79 of the 1999 Criminal Code for “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration”. He had previously been sentenced to four years in jail in 2013 for “activities aimed at overthrowing the government” and was released in January 2017 but arrested days later for allegedly violating the terms of his probation and resisting arrest. Oai has a daughter who is less than six months old.

Arbitrary transfers

Jailed activist Tran Thi Nga was arbitrarily transferred by the authorities to Dak Trung Camp prison in the province of Dak Lak, a distance of over 1,200 km from her home in Ha Nam. Her family found out about the transfer on 5th March 2018 after they attempted to visit her in the detention facility near Phu Ly city to provide her with some supplements. The transfer will make it much more difficult for her family, including her two young children, to visit her. Tran Thi Nga was arrested in February 2017 on allegations of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the Penal Code. In July 2017, she was sentenced to nine years imprisonment and five years under house arrest.

The authorities also arbitrarily transferred jailed blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (also known as “Mother Mushroom” or Me Nam) on 7th February 2018 to a remote prison hundreds of kilometres from her former location in the city of Nha Trang. She is now imprisoned in No. 5 Prison in Yen Dinh, Thanh Hoa province. Her mother found out about the transfer on 12th February when she when to visit her. Quynh was charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” in October 2016 and sentenced to ten years in prison in June 2017.

Blocked from engaging the UN

Vietnam officials barred the wives of three jailed pro-democracy activists Nguyen Van DaiTruong Minh Duc and Pham Van Troi from participating in a meeting with officials from UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) who were visiting the country. Cynthia Veliko, head of OHCHR Regional Office in Southeast Asia, had invited five wives of activists to the UN headquarters in Hanoi to talk about their situation. While two managed to attend the meeting, the other three were blocked by security forces who threatened that they would not be permitted to visit their jailed husbands in the future if they attended the meeting.