Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 13/2021 – Week of March 29-April 4

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of March 29-April 4. Another journalist has been arrested for writing about corruption. Four activists were sentenced to 27 years in prison this week in two separate trials. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc has begun his third hunger strike since October, and we have updates on political prisoners Tran Thanh Phuong and Trinh Ba Phuong. Amnesty International has called on Vietnam to stop repression of dissent ahead of the upcoming National Assembly elections. In the news, read about recent developments in economics and international relations. In case you missed it, read a poem by political prisoner Tran Duc Thach. And check back later this week for the release of our 2020 report on human rights in Vietnam. Take action this week with English PEN for dissident writer Pham Doan Trang.


Political Prisoners

Journalist Hoai Nam from state-run newspaper Luat Phap (The Law) was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on April 2, 2021. He was accused of “slander” by Lt. Gen. Tran Van Ve, a retired high-ranking official in the Ministry of Security. Hoai Nam has received many government awards for his reporting on corruption. Before his arrest, Hoai Nam had already turned in his letter of resignation. He will be temporarily detained for at least three months for investigation.

The defendants at trial on March 30, 2021, Source: Khanh Hoa Online

The People’s Court of Khanh Hoa Province handed down harsh sentences for three people charged with “propaganda against the state.” Nguyen Thi Cam Thuy, 45, received nine years in prison, Ngo Thi Ha Phuong, 25, five years, and Ngo Viet Hoa, 55, three years. Cam Thuy was accused of distributing videos and live streams that defamed Ho Chi Minh and the Party, burning the national flag, displaying the flag of the former South Vietnam government, and other offenses. The other two were charged with acting as accomplices. All three have been convicted based on Article 117 of the Criminal Code for conducting “propaganda against the state.”

After a short one-day trial, Facebooker Vu Tien Chi, 55, was given a 10-year prison sentence for conducting  “propaganda against the state” under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code. He was arrested in June 2020 and accused of sharing 338 articles and 181 videos on his social media to “distort and defame the people’s administration, infringe the interests of the Communist Party of Vietnam and state.”

Democracy activist Tran Huynh Duy Thuc has begun another hunger strike, his third since October. He wants to have his 16-year sentence reduced based on the new Criminal Code. He has already served 11 years. Thuc was arrested in 2009 and convicted in 2010 on charges of plotting to overthrow the government under Article 79 of the old 1999 Criminal Code. He argues that based on revisions of this article, he should be charged only with preparing to commit a crime, which carries a much lesser sentence.

Tran Thanh Phuong’s wife and daughter were finally allowed to visit him in prison for the first time in eight months on March 29, 2021. She reported that he was disciplined for refusing to sign a letter admitting guilt and for helping other prisoners request better conditions. He also told her he’d been moved to a much smaller cell with criminal prisoners who smoke a lot, saying this was causing his health to deteriorate. Phuong requested to be moved but has not received a response so far. A member of the Hien Phap (Constitution) group, Phuong was sentenced in 2018 to three and a half years for his activism.

Trinh Ba Phuong’s wife, Thu Do, says that Phuong is back in Prison No. 1 in Hanoi, after being evaluated at Mental Hospital Central 1. She delivered supplies and money to him in March. The authorities refused to tell his wife the reason for the initial transfer. Phuong’s sister, Thao Trinh, said that her brother had maintained his right to remain silent in detention and refused to answer questions, prompting the main investigator to question his wife two months ago about his mental state. Phuong is a land rights activist awaiting trial on charges of “conducting propaganda against the state.”

Ngo Van Dung, a member of the Hien Phap (Constitution) group, has been transferred to An Phuoc Prison along with two other group members, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh and Le Quy Loc; they were convicted of “disturbing security” and have received sentences of five years, eight years and five years, respectively. Dung is serving five years in prison, Hanh eight years, and Loc five years.

International Advocacy

CIVICUS released its most recent update on Vietnam, focusing on topics such as journalists arrested for their anti-corruption work and cases of political prisoners undertaking hunger strikes.

Amnesty International has called on Vietnamese authorities to end their current crackdown on independent candidates in the upcoming National Assembly elections and respect their own law. Two candidates and one medical doctor have been arrested in recent weeks and charged under Article 117 for “propaganda against the state” as they campaign to get on the ballot. The elections will take place on May 23, 2021.


Rapping Vietnam ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink tapped as Joe Biden’s top Asia envoy, South China Morning Post, March 27, 2021: “Daniel Kritenbrink, a career diplomat who speaks Chinese and Japanese, was nominated by Biden to be the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, a White House statement said. Kritenbrink became an internet sensation last month during Tet, the Lunar New Year that is Vietnam’s most important annual celebration, as he put out his own rap video to send his greetings.”

U.S. Trade Chief Raises Concerns on Vietnam Currency Policy, John Boudreau, Bloomberg. April 1, 2021: “U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai raised concerns about Vietnam’s currency practices during a virtual meeting on Thursday with the country’s trade minister. Tai also addressed U.S. concerns on illegal timber practices, digital trade and agriculture, according to a readout from her office of the meeting with Tran Tuan Anh, Vietnam’s minister of industry and trade. They agreed to a ‘sustained dialogue’ in the future, it said.”

Coronavirus: Vietnam asks for foreign support in procuring Covid-19 vaccines, South China Morning Post, April 2, 2021: “Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long on Thursday asked Japan’s embassy for help with technology transfer for vaccine production and testing in Vietnam, the ministry said in a statement on Friday. Long also asked the US ambassador for help with accelerating Vietnam’s inoculation programme and securing access to vaccines from US drug makers, and told EU representatives he hoped European pharmaceutical firms would consider more investment in Vietnam, the statement said.”

Vietnam Defends A Line In The Sand, Strategy Page, April 3, 2021. “Since 2019 Vietnam has been visibly improving its military facilities on several of the Spratly islands that China has been claiming even though the islands are closer to Vietnam and were often occupied by Vietnamese civilian or military facilities. The latest Vietnamese improvements are most obvious (via commercial satellite photos) on West Reef and Sin Cowe Island. The most obvious change in West Reef is that it is now larger (28 hectares/70 acres) and most of it is recently dredged up sand. Sim Cowe also had about 11 hectares of land added, via dredged up sand. Most of that new land is now covered with military structures, including bunkers for coast defense guns or missiles, radars and ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) sensors plus landing pads (for helicopters) or short airstrips.”

Vietnam Should be More Proactive in Global Governance, Phuong Pham, The Diplomat, March 30, 2021: “Besides those issues that Vietnam is facing as noted previously, there are many other ones that must be addressed, such as corruption, legal weaknesses, and resources management, which have been hampering Vietnam’s development for many years. Apparently, these problems have caused billions of dollars in losses for Vietnam, as well as tarnished its image in terms of governance. This implies that without addressing its governance issues in a systematic way, Vietnam will have neither the necessary credibility nor the resources to be more proactive in global governance, making it impossible to step up in this realm.”

The Price Of Progress. Aerolyne Reed, The Vietnamese, April 3, 2021: “Yet, economic growth and financial stability is only one way to measure the worth of a nation. While Vietnam seems to be doing admirably well in this regard, it is floundering in several other aspects. To be more specific, in its observation of human rights, and in the protection of several of its most marginalized citizens. The Human Rights Measurement Initiative’s (HRMI) 2020 Country Report on Vietnam presents several findings that both highlight Vietnam’s economic success and its key failings as a country.”


Tran Duc Thach at his appeal trial, Source: State Media via Radio Free Asia

Poet Tran Duc Thach was a soldier in the  North Vietnamese Army and is the author of the short story ‘The Haunting Mass Grave.” He was sentenced in 2009 to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state.” A founder of the group the Brotherhood for Democracy, Thạch was arrested a second time in 2020 and sentenced to 12 years for “conspiracy to overthrow the government.” His appeal of his 12-year sentence was denied on March 24, 2021. Here is one of Thach’s original poems, both translated and in the original Vietnamese.


Stay tuned this week as we release our second annual report on human rights in Vietnam. This report covers arrests, trials, prison conditions, and harassment against political prisoners and activists at risk in 2020.


Please help spread the word and share with your network the case of celebrated female writer/activist Pham Doan Trang, who is awaiting trial for her peaceful activism and for writing books about democratic principles that the Party considers “anti-state propaganda.”

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