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Vietnam urged to drop charges against human rights defenders and environmental activists

Vietnamese protesters demonstrate against Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa during a rally in downtown Hanoi, 1 May 2016
Vietnamese protesters demonstrate against Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa during a rally in downtown Hanoi, 1 May 2016

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 4 April 2018.

Vietnam should drop all charges against rights campaigners Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc and release them immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. The People's Court of Hanoi is scheduled to hear their case on April 5, 2018.

The six activists were charged with "carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people's administration" under article 79 of the penal code.

"The only crime that these activists have committed is to campaign tirelessly for democracy and defend victims of human rights abuses," said Brad Adams, Asia director. "The Vietnamese government should thank them for their efforts to improve the country instead of arresting and putting them on trial."

Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc are accused of being affiliated with Brotherhood for Democracy, which was founded in April 2013 by Nguyen Van Dai and fellow activists. With the stated goal "to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions" and "to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam," Brotherhood for Democracy provides a network for activists both in and outside Vietnam who campaign for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.

Members of the group conducted informal trainings on civil society, human rights, and democracy, and learned skills such as safety and security on the internet. They participated in anti-China and pro-environment protests, and in humanitarian activities such as helping victims of natural disasters and veterans with disabilities. The Brotherhood for Democracy provided legal assistance to fellow activists who were arrested and charged for their pro-democracy activities and co-signed petitions calling for democracy and human rights in Vietnam. They also visited the family of political detainees and prisoners to show solidarity.

All six activists have participated in numerous human rights activities, including campaigning for victims, teaching human rights standards, advocating for religious freedom, and supporting political prisoners and their families. Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc joined other civil social groups to campaign against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

The police arrested Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha in December 2015 and charged them with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. Both were held in detention for almost 20 months without access to legal counsel. In July 2017, the police changed the charge to "carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people's administration" under article 79 of the penal code. The other four were arrested in July 2017 under the same charge.

Except for Le Thu Ha, each of the other five accused had previously served prison sentences for their peaceful pro-democracy and human rights activism.

According to Quang Binh Online, the mouthpiece of the communist party branch of Quang Binh province, "to take advantage of the maritime environmental incident in the central coast in April 2016, together with other hostile forces and reactionary elements, Brotherhood for Democracy strived to propagandize, distort, stir up and incite people to participate in protests in the name of 'justice,' 'freedom,' 'democracy,' and 'march and protest for the environment.' These subjects tried to inflate and exacerbate sensitive issues that receive attention of public opinion; causing irritation, doubt and discontent among the masses. The polluted environmental incident accidentally became 'an opportunity' and 'a cause' for these subjects to exploit and raise a hullabaloo to influence public opinions both inside and outside the country, [making people] mis-understand the policies and guidelines of the Party and the State, and the course of socio-economic development of local regions."

Since the Formosa environmental catastrophe in April 2016, there have been numerous protests in Vietnam to demand a clean environment and fair compensation for victims who lost their livelihoods. Vietnamese authorities have responded by arresting and imprisoning activists who protested, including Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Tran Thi Nga, Ho Van Hai, Tran Hoang Phuc, Hoang Duc Binh, Nguyen Van Hoa, and many others.

"It is no coincidence that the trial of these six activists is planned on the two-year anniversary of the Formosa environmental disaster," said Adams. "Instead of silencing critics, the Vietnamese government should order an impartial outside assessment of its clean-up effort and deal directly with citizens in the affected areas to provide fair and transparent compensation for their losses."


Nguyen Van Dai

Nguyen Van Dai, 48, is a human rights lawyer who supported the formation of many rights groups in 2006, including the Vietnam Independent Union, the pro-democracy Bloc 8406, and the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam. He took on most of the legal defense for embattled Protestant churches, including the case of Mennonite pastor and former political prisoner Nguyen Hong Quang. He has written a number of articles about democracy and press freedom. He also opened informal classes at his law office for students who wanted to learn about human rights.

For his activities, Nguyen Van Dai has been subject to numerous accounts of harassment, intimidation, interrogation, house arrest, detention, physical assault, and imprisonment. He was disbarred and arrested in March 2007 for "conducting propaganda against the state" under article 88 of the penal code. In May 2007, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In November 2007, an appeals court reduced his sentence to four years.

After completing his prison sentence, Nguyen Van Dai immediately resumed his human rights activism. In April 2013, he helped found a group called Brotherhood for Democracy, with the goals "to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions" and "to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam."

For further information on Nguyen Van Dai and the other rights campaigners, please see HRW's statement.

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