Vietnamese activists face imprisonment, attacks and arbitrary prison transfers


Environmental activist jailed for 20 years

On 17th August 2018, environmental activist and blogger Le Dinh Luong (pictured above) was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and five years’ probation. He was arrested in July 2017, and charged under article 79 of the Penal Code (article 109 of the new Criminal Code ) for “aiming to overthrow the people’s administration and cause social disorder”. The trial lasted just five hours. The prosecutor claimed Luong was encouraging people to join the pro-democracy group Viet Tan, which the government labels a terrorist organisation.

Luong has been involved in activism since Vietnam’s border war with China in 1979. In recent years he has conducted most of his activism on Facebook under the pen name Lo Ngoc. Prior to being arrested in 2017, Luong campaigned to seek compensation for farmers and fishermen impacted by the 2016 Formosa environmental disaster, which killed tons of fish along more than 120 miles of coastline.

Six UN Special Rapporteurs had previously raised concerns about his case as part of a larger crackdown on human rights defenders that occurred in 2017. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the record 20-year prison sentence. Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk said:

"The extremely harsh sentence imposed on Le Dinh Luong is yet further evidence of the disturbing manner in which the Vietnamese Communist Party's current leadership is stepping up its persecution of bloggers.”

According to RSF, the indictment of Luong is based almost entirely on his Facebook account data, and not just on the content of his posts, as was the case until now with other bloggers convicted in Vietnam. They believed this is seen as a pointer to the Vietnamese Internet's future under the cyber-crime law that was passed in June 2018.

Protestant Pastor imprisoned for subversion

On 12th July 2018, Protestant pastor Dinh Diem was convicted by the People’s Court in the central province of Quang Ngai for being “engaged in subversive activities to overthrow the people’s government” under Article 109 of the 2015 Penal Code. Pastor Diem, who belongs to an unsanctioned Lutheran Church, was arrested on 5th January 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison by the court, according to state media.

He was a member of the unregistered organisation Vietnam Inter-faith Council which works to enhance the right to freedom of religions and beliefs. He was also a member of Fulro, an organisation of ethnic minorities calling for autonomy of the indigenous people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. 

Activists Beaten in Concert Raid 

On 15th August 2018, government officers and men in civilian clothes raided a concert at a café in Ho Chi Minh City and physically assaulted the performer and a prominent activist in the audience. As some of those involved in the raid filmed the scene, government officers demanded that the concert organisers produce papers to show that they had permission to hold the event.

As the audience started to leave, several of the intruders grabbed Pham Doan Trang (pictured above), an activist in the audience, and dragged her to a car outside the cafe. Pham Doan Trang is a prominent and outspoken journalist, activist, and blogger whose writing covers a wide range of topics, many related to human rights and the rule of law. She is one of the few journalists in Vietnam who publishes bilingually in Vietnamese and English. The singer at the café and rights activist Nguyen Tin was also beaten.

Pham was taken to the taken to the police headquarters of Ward 7, District 3, where she was beaten repeatedly during interrogation. After the interrogation, the police took her from the station in a taxi and dropped her off on a dark street. As soon as the police left, six men on three motorbikes arrived and assaulted her, beating her over the head with a motorcycle helmet.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said:

“This kind of shocking and brutal physical assault against human rights activists, bloggers, and artists is rapidly becoming the new normal in failing to investigate or hold accountable those committing these thuggish acts, the authorities are signaling that attacks against dissidents will enjoy impunity.”

The CIVICUS Monitor had previously documented how 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 published as well as her news articles and blog posts on topics ranging from the environment, freedom of religion and civil society.

Activist beaten and threatened in prison 

On 17th August 2018, activist Tran Thi Nga (pictured above) was beaten in prison by an inmate sharing the prison cell with her, who had also previously threatened her life. She has also been reportedly bullied by prison inmates, whose actions were sanctioned by prison wardens.

Nga believes the harassment against her is aimed to force her to make a confession. Nga has refused to admit to the charges against her, saying she has done nothing wrong.

Nga is a labour activist as well as blogger who has covered many issues including police brutality, human trafficking, unlawful land grabbing and labour abuses. Because of her work she was arrested and sentenced in 2017 to nine years imprisonment plus an additional five years of house arrest after she was convicted under Article 88 of the Penal Code for spreading “anti-state propaganda” in online videos and articles she posted.

She 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.

Reporter tortured in prison to confess

On 21st August, Defender the Defenders reported that imprisoned activist and Radio Free Asia reporter Nguyen Van Hoa had been tortured by investigating officers to make a forced confession against environmental activist Le Dinh Luong. The testimony was then used in court to convict Le Dinh Luong, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on 16th August on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government” (see case above).

Ha Huy Son, Luong's defense lawyer, said that Hoa was beaten in prison and forced to testify against his client and that Hoa retracted his earlier testimony in court on 16 August.

Shawn Crispin, CPJ's Southeast Asia representative said:

"Vietnamese authorities must stop immediately their harassment and abuse of reporter Nguyen Van Hoa…instead of beating jailed journalists into making false confessions, Vietnamese authorities should free all journalists behind bars, reform the laws that put them there, and hold to account those who abused their power to commit this assault."

As documented previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, on 27th November 2017, Nguyen Van Hoa was sentenced to seven years in prison. Hoa has played an important role in triggering others to protest against the Taiwanese Formosa steel plant’s toxic spill in Vietnam. He has also been a critical voice against the government through his blog and social media platforms. Hoa is also known to be the first blogger to use a fly cam to report peaceful demonstrations against Formosa. He was charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code for allegedly “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State and the rights and legitimate interests of organisations and citizens”.

Labor activist attacked with explosive devices and rocks

Do Thi Minh Hanh (pictured above), a member of the Lao Dong Viet movement which advocates for labour rights in Viet Nam, was attacked on the evening of 24th June, when around a dozen men, believed to be undercover policemen, began throwing rocks at her family home. A second attack occurred on 27th June, when explosive devices were also thrown. Another attack occurred on 30th June. The attacks caused extensive damage, breaking glass and roof tiles and damaging furniture.

In 2006, Do Thi Minh Hanh co-founded the United Workers-Farmers Organisation (UNFO) an independent union to promote better pay and adequate workplace safety. In October 2010 she was handed a seven-year sentence for “disrupting national security” under the 1999 Penal Code. She was suddenly released in June 2014, after spending four years and four months in prison.

Arbitrary prison transfers of activists, far from their families

On 6th August 2018, Vietnam authorities arbitrarily transferred jailed human rights defender and pro-democracy activist Vu Van Hung (pictured above) to Prison camp No. 3 located in the central province of Nghe An’s Tan Ky district. The prison camp is about 300 km from his residence in Ha Dong district, Hanoi. Hung was previously detained in temporary detention facility No. 2 under the authority of the Hanoi Police Department, located in Thuong Tin district.

In April 2018, Hung was convicted and sentenced to one-year imprisonment for "deliberately causing injury". He was a member of the Brotherhood for Democracy and had previously been arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment under article 88 Vietnam Penal code 1999 for “spreading propaganda against the state” in 2008 and later released in 2011.

In July 2018, the authorities arbitrarily transferred jailed Protestant pastor Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Bac Truyen and Pham Van Troi to prisons far from their families. The trio are founders of the online group Brotherhood for Democracy. Pastor Ton was transferred to Dak Trung Prison camp in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, about 1,000 km from his home in Thanh Hoa while Truyen was taken to An Diem Prison camp in the central province of Quang Nam, about 850 km from Ho Chi Minh City where his wife stays. Pham Van Troi was transferred to Ba Sao Prison Camp about 100 km far from his family in Hanoi.

In July 2018, labour activist and environmental campaigner Hoang Duc Binh (pictured above) was arbitrarily transferred to An Diem prison camp in the central province of Quang Nam, about 550 km from his family. On 2nd July, his brother and parents went to the Nghi Kim temporary detention facility in Nghe An province to visit Binh. However, the facility’s authorities told them that Binh had been taken away.

Binh, vice president of the organisation Viet Labor Movement, was arrested on in May 2017 and charged with “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties” under Article 330 and “abusing democratic freedoms” under Article 331 of the country’s 2015 Penal Code. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in February 2018.

Truong Minh Duc, who was convicted of “carrying out activities to overthrow the people’s government” in April 2018, was transferred to the Prison Camp No. 6 in Thanh Chuong district of the central province of Nghe An in July 2018. The prison camp is located about 1,200 km from Ho Chi Minh City from his family. Duc a labour activist and a key figure in the Brotherhood for Democracy. He was arrested in July 2017 and charged with subversion under Article 79 of the country’s 1999 Penal Code.

Human rights lawyer exiled to Germany

On 5th August 2018, Vietnam authorities released prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha. However,  together with Van Dai’s wife (pictured below) they were then boarded on a plane and sent into exile in Germany.

Nguyen Van Dai is the co-founder of the Vietnam Human Rights Committee and a pro-democracy activist. He has provided legal assistance to citizens speaking out against human rights violations committed by the government and members of religious minorities and has faced judicial harassment in the past.

Van Dai was arrested while attempting to meet with EU delegates for the annual EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in 2015. He was held in incommunicado detention for most of his time in pre-trial detention, and his pre-trial investigation period was extended several times, potentially prompting Dai to stage a hunger strike. On 30th July 2017 Dai was charged under Article 79 for subversion. On 5th April 2018, he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment and five years of house arrest. At the same time, Le Thu Ha was sentenced to nine years in prison and two years of house arrest. 

Peaceful assembly

Binh Thuan Court imprisons ten protestors

On 23rd July 2018, a court in Tuy Phong district, Binh Thuan province, convicted ten protesters for “disturbance of public order” under Article 318 of the country’s 2015 Penal Code for their participation in demonstrations on 10th June 2018 against two pieces of legislation.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, mass nationwide demonstrations were reported in Vietnam on 10th June 2018, including in the cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Danang, Nha Trang and Binh Thuan. The protests were primarily against two bills on Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and Cyber Security. Police dispersed many of the protests with many being arrested and subsequently charged. Some demonstrators were beaten in custody.

Pham Van Sang and Do Van Ngoc were sentenced to three years and six months in prison while Ngo Van Dat and Nguyen Chuong were each sentenced to three years. Ngo Duc Quyen, Pham Thanh Nam, Nguyen Ngoc Sang and Le Van Liem were sentenced to 30 months imprisonment. Nguyen Van Meo and Nguyen Minh Kha each received lighter sentences of two years in prison.

20 protestors prosecuted in Dong Nai

On 31st July 2018, it was reported that the authorities had decided to prosecute 20 protesters for of “disturbance of public order” under Article 318 of the country’s 2015 for their participation in peaceful demonstrations in Bien Hoa city on 10th June 2018 against the bills on Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and Cyber Security.

Female protester abducted and allegedly tortured after participating in protest

According to Defend the Defenders, activist Cao Hoang Tram Anh who lives in its coastal city of Nha Trang was abducted by four men in the early hours of 25th June 2018 for participating in recent peaceful demonstrations on 10th June to protest two bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security.

The men allegedly sprayed a liquid on her face that made her unconscious and took her to a abandoned house in the city where they tortured her physically and mentally for hours. They released her on the same day. Anh told Defend the Defenders that before her abduction, police in Khanh Hoa came to her apartment twice to request that she stop writing about politics.

Anh has posted a number of articles on her Facebook account particularly on systemic corruption, human rights violations and increasing Chinese influence on Vietnam.


Independent blogger arrested and charged 

On 5th July 2018, Vietnamese blogger and political journalist Le Anh Hung was arrested under suspicion of “abusing democratic freedoms” after he published an open letter which criticised the government’s new policy on economic zones.

According to Amnesty International, Le Anh Hung published a letter on 2nd July 2018, which was shared on social media, criticising senior members of the country’s ruling Communist Party (CPV) and a proposed new law that would see designated economic zones established within the country offering special incentives for foreign investors. He will be held for the next three months for investigation and could face up to seven years in prison if he is convicted.

Vietnam activist under house arrest for defacing flag 

In August 2018, blogger and activist Huynh Thuc Vy was ordered to remain in her home and is banned from leaving the country until October 2018. She is under investigation for "affronting the flag" after she smeared white paint on the national flag last year. Vy could face up to three years in prison if convicted.

Huynh Thuc Vy was initially arrested by police on 9th August in Dak Lak province’s Buon Ho town after refusing previous summons to come to their offices for questioning. Around an hour later, another group of 30 to 40 people came to search their house. They searched for about two to three hours, and took away her laptop, camera, phone, books, and clothes. Vy was interrogated for 15 hours before they issued the house arrest order.

Vy, is the co-founder of the Vietnamese Women for Human Rights group, she won a Hellman/Hammett grant from Human Rights Watch in 2012 for her political writing on rights issues and the persecution of ethnic minorities. She has been frequently targeted by officials

Vietnam’s new Cyber law raises human rights concerns

On 11th July 2018, Vietnamese legislators approved a cybersecurity law that tightens control of the internet and global tech companies operating in the country, raising fears of further crackdown on dissent. The cyber law, takes effect on 1st January 2019. The day before its approval, thousands of demonstrators had protested against the cybersecurity bill,which they believed would stifle online dissent.

The vote was held as police manned barricades outside the legislature in the capital Hanoi. The cyber law was approved by 91 percent of attending legislators.

About 55 million Vietnamese are regular social media users, according to a 2018 global digital report by the media consulting firm We Are Social, and Hootsuite, a social media management firm. Vietnam ranked seventh among active Facebook-using countries, the report said, while its economic hub, Ho Chi Minh City, was number 10 among cities with active Facebook users.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, concerns were raised by human rights groups about the bill. According to Amnesty International the law would give sweeping powers to the Vietnamese authorities, allowing them to force technology companies to hand over potentially vast amounts of data, including personal information, and to censor users’ posts. Many articles in the proposed law are vaguely worded, allowing for broad interpretation by authorities. One article rules it a crime to post material online that “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people, and national heroes".