Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 1/2021 – December 21, 2020 – January 10, 2021

Greetings from The 88 Project and Happy New Year! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of December 21-27, December 28-January 3, and January 4-January 10. Three independent journalists– Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan– were sentenced to a combined 37 years in prison on January 5. Three Facebookers were convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced to prison on December 21, and another Facebooker was sentenced to one year on January 7 for “offending” a local official. Another active Facebooker, Le Thi Binh, who is the younger sister of a former political prisoner, was arrested in December. On January 8, an appeals court upheld the sentences against four political prisoners. Writer Pham Thanh was transferred back to prison after he had been sent to a mental health facility for an evaluation, and blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc remains on hunger strike since late November. Green Trees environmental activist Cao Vinh Thinh continues to be harassed by the authorities. After the January 5 trial of journalists Dung, Thuy, and Tuan, several organizations and government agencies spoke out against the harsh sentences, including the US State Department and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A group of UN professionals also sent a petition to the Vietnamese government asking for more information around the arrests and detention conditions of five activists who were jailed for their advocacy after the 2020 Dong Tam Commune raid, including dissident writer Pham Doan Trang. In the news and analysis section, read about Facebook’s censorship of Vietnamese activists and analysis of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Congress this month. Please take action for Tran Huynh Duy Thuc to demand information on his condition, as well as for Le Huu Minh Tuan, by sharing this video of his peaceful activism in his own words.


Political Prisoners

From left to right: Thuy, Tuan, and Dung at trial on January 5, 2021, Source: Vietnam News Agency via Reuters/NY Times

Three members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) were sentenced to a total of 37 years in prison after a trial lasting half a day. Pham Chi Dung, 55, received 15 years; Nguyen Tuong Thuy, 69, received 11 years; and Le Huu Minh Tuan, 32, received 11 years. All three were convicted of “anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code. Thuy is known to be in poor health; the long sentences could cause serious health problems. You can read our analysis of the trial here. Before his sentencing, Thuy made this statement: “All my articles are just yearnings for our people and our country. In the future, activities like mine will be considered perfectly normal.” Dung said, “A harsh sentence for independent journalists like us will show the world what ‘freedom of the press’ looks like in Vietnam. It’ll also create problems in international relations during this difficult period.”

Huynh Anh Khoa

On December 21, social media activists Huynh Anh KhoaNguyen Dang Thuong, and Tran Trong Khai were sentenced to 15 months, 18 months, and 12 months in prison, respectively. They were accused of “abusing democratic freedoms” under Article 331 of the 2015 Criminal Code for administering a Facebook page that discusses economics and politics. The defendants were tried without counsel, and their families were not allowed into the courtroom.

Le Minh The

On December 22, the Can Tho City police department arrested Le Thi Binh (Facebook name Ngoc Lan Can Tho). Binh is the younger sister of Le Minh The, a former political prisoner who spent two years in jail; he was released in June 2020. Binh participated in the peaceful nationwide protests on June 10, 2018. She posted on her Facebook many articles about Vietnamese issues. She was charged under the vague Article 331 of the 2015 Criminal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms.”

Journalist Pham Thanh was suddenly moved from a medical facility back to Hoa Lo Prison on New Year’s Day without notice, his wife said. She fears the harsh conditions in the prison will make the 70-year-old’s health worse. The author and veteran journalist was reportedly moved to a mental health facility in late November. He was arrested in May 2020 and charged with conducting “propaganda against the state” until Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code; Thanh still awaits trial.

Nguyen Van Nhanh at trial, Source: State Media via RFA

Facebooker Nguyen Van Nhanh was sentenced on January 7 to one year in prison by a Dong Nai court for “offending” an official whom he accused of mismanaging a local land dispute in Dong Nai Province.

From left: Ngo Van Dung, Le Quy Loc, and Ho Dinh Cuong

The court of appeals upheld the sentences of four activists alleged to be members of the Hien Phap group.  The defendants denied the affiliation in court. They are Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh (eight years in prison); Ngo Van Dung and Le Quy Loc (five years each); and Ho Dinh Cuong (four years and six months). They were charged with “disturbing security”. Unlike the first trial, this time family members were allowed to observe the proceedings, albeit only via a video feed in the next room, due to the presence of the US Consul General in the courtroom.

This week, we remember the arrest and trial anniversaries of the following political prisoners:

  • Five Hoa Hao Buddhists tried on December 21, 2017, and sentenced to a total of 19 years in prison for “propaganda against the state”
  • Anti-corruption BOT tollbooth activist Dang Thi Hue, birthday December 25, sentenced to one year in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms”
  • Religious freedom activist Tran Thanh Giang, birthday December 27, sentenced to eight years in prison for “propaganda against the state”
  • Nine pro-democracy activists tried on December 27, 2017, and sentenced to between three and 14 years in prison each on charges of “subversion”
  • Hien Phap member Huynh Truong Ca, tried on December 28, 2018, and sentenced to five years and six months in prison for “propaganda against the state”
  • Anti-corruption BOT tollbooth activist Ha Van Nam, birthday January 1, sentenced to two years and six months in prison for “causing public disorder”
  • Online commentator Dinh Van Phu, arrested January 9, 2020, and awaiting trial on charges of  “propaganda against the state”
Activists at Risk

Green Trees environmental activist Cao Vinh Thinh shared on her Facebook page a message to the authorities accusing them of continued harassment against her studies and business. Her small business, Zero Waste, has been subjected to constant abuses by the authorities, the latest one involving her landlord not renewing her lease due to government pressure. Thinh was named one of the five most inspirational female entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia by Mashable last year.

Nguyen Phuc Dai was detained by the police at his home in Cam Ranh, Khanh Hoa Province. His family said a group of people came in and took him away while he was eating lunch at his home. Dai had participated in the nationwide protests on June 10, 2018. He fled to Thailand but returned to Vietnam a year later. He was released later the same day.

International Advocacy

Prior to and after the January 5 trial of Nguyen Tuong ThuyPham Chi Dung, and Le Huu Minh Tuan, many organizations expressed their support for the activists and pressed for the Vietnamese government to drop the charges against them, including:

The Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also released a statement condemning the trial, saying “We are deeply concerned by the use of vaguely-defined laws to arbitrarily detain an increasing number of independent journalists, bloggers, online commentators and human rights defenders – in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).”

Top row, from left: Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Phuong, and Trinh Ba Tu
Bottom row, from left: Pham Doan Trang and Nguyen Thi Tam

The UN Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and on the situation of human rights defenders, as well as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, sent a petition to the Vietnamese government concerning the cases of five people arrested for their reporting on and activism in the aftermath of the violent police raid in Dong Tam Commune in January 2020: Can Thi TheuTrinh Ba PhuongTrinh Ba TuPham Doan Trang, and Nguyen Thi Tam. All five were known activists before the Dong Tam raid, particularly in the area of land rights; they are still awaiting trial at the time of this writing. This is Theu’s third arrest.

The parties wrote of these cases: “We are troubled by the fact that these arrests and the charges brought against them appear to be an attempt to criminalise their efforts to investigate, document and bring public attention to the alleged human rights violations that occurred during the raid.” They expressed concern about the arbitrary arrests and lack of information available to family members and lawyers. They also called on the government to provide more information on the legal basis for the arrests and detentions and the safeguards in place to protect the human rights of activists.

Defend the Defenders issued their year-end roundup of the number and status of political prisoners in Vietnam. Their detailed report can be found here.


FACEBOOK LETS VIETNAM’S CYBERARMY TARGET DISSIDENTS, REJECTING A CELEBRITY’S PLEA, Sam Biddle, The Intercept, December 21, 2020: “ In April, Reuters reported that the Vietnamese government slowed Facebook’s servers to the point of inoperability, leading Facebook to agree to comply with more official takedown requests. But as Mai Khoi discovered, Vietnamese Facebook is also plagued by unofficial censorship, achieved not by declaring content illegal but by coordinating users to flag it for violating Facebook’s own content rules, known as the ‘Community Standards.’ This dupes Facebook into removing ordinary political speech as though it were hate speech, violent incitement, or gory video.”

Vietnam’s Communists Sort Out Leadership, David Brown, Asia Sentinel, December 22, 2020: “Every five years, there’s a Communist Party congress. Therefore, in late January, upwards of 1500 delegates will convene in Hanoi, not to choose new leaders, but rather to celebrate the party’s successes and to ratify the leaders that have been chosen for them. In anticipation of the congress, a more elite body, the party’s 200-member central committee, has been straining to finalize a list of 19 candidates for the 19 seats on the politburo (the party’s executive committee), and to choose the members who will fill the four most prestigious positions: chairman of the National Assembly, state president and the two jobs that really matter, prime minister and general secretary of the party.”

Vietnam ramps up crackdown on dissent ahead of Communist Party congress, Chris Humphrey and Bac Pham, South China Morning Post, January 7, 2021: “Rights groups and analysts say the authorities’ recent moves are primarily aimed at silencing dissent ahead of Vietnam’s quinquennial national congress. The event, which runs from January 25 to February 2, will see the Communist Party of Vietnam draft a new five-year economic plan and overhaul most of its key leadership positions. The party’s ‘ four pillar’ leadership – comprising the general secretary of the Politburo; the president; prime minister; and the head of the national assembly, Vietnam’s parliament – could all face either promotion or the political axe. Amid this backdrop of closed-door political jockeying and factionalism, little breathing space remains for those critical of the Vietnamese state.”


Journalist Le Huu Minh Tuan was arrested in June 2020 and sentenced to 11 years in prison on January 5, 2021, in a half day trial, together with prominent journalists Pham Chi Dung and Nguyen Tuong Thuy. The authorities accused them of writing “reactionary content,” of publishing articles that “distort the truth, incite individuals to rise up and overthrow the people’s government, or even incite hatred and extremism.” However, a video of Tuan highlights the peaceful nature of his work and aspirations. He contends that he joined the IJAVN, a purely civil and professional entity, to pursue the rights enshrined in Vietnam’s Constitution. He also emphasizes, explicitly, that his objective is never to topple the current regime. Please watch and share this video of Le Huu Minh Tuan speaking in his own words.

Imprisoned blogger and entrepreneur Tran Huynh Duy Thuc started a hunger strike on November 23 to protest the authorities’ failure to respond to his petition for a reduction of his sentence based on changes to the 2015 Criminal Code. His family has been unable to get an update on his condition. Take action in support of Thuc here. 

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