Free speech Vietnam

Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 16/2020 – Week of April 13-19

Featured Image: Activists at Taiwan court to demonstrate Formosa pollution case, Source:

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of April 13-19. Music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh will face his appeal trial on April 20; he was sentenced to 11 years in prison in November 2019. Authorities in Can Tho City have arrested Ma Phung Ngoc Phu under Article 331 of the 2015 Criminal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms” for her online posts about the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, authorities in Hau Giang arrested Facebooker Dinh Thi Thu Thuy and charged her with “conducting propaganda against the state” for allegedly having anti-government materials at her home. In addition, local police in Khanh Hoa Province detained and questioned Facebooker Vu Phong for several hours. In environmental activism, groups continue to pursue legal action demanding adequate compensation after the 2016 Formosa Plastics environment disaster. Advocacy efforts continued for the release of political prisoners at risk of contracting COVID-19, and Vietnam’s new decree on the death penalty took effect this week. In the news, read about new fines for “fake news” on COVID-19 and US-Vietnam defense ties. Take action for imprisoned journalists with the Committee to Protect Journalist’s #FreeThePress campaign.


Political Prisoners

Nguyen Nang Tinh at his first instance trial, Source: State media via Radio Free Asia
The appeal trial for teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh will be held on April 20, 2020, according to his attorney, Dang Dinh Manh. Initially, the appeal trial was scheduled for March 18, 2020. However, due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, it was postponed indefinitely. This announcement has raised many questions among Tinh’s supporters, especially since national social distancing policy in Vietnam is expected to end on April 22, and it is uncertain whether it will be extended. On November 15, 2019, the People’s Court of Nghe An Province sentenced Tinh to 11 years in prison for his online posts protesting inequality and the lack of democracy in Vietnam. A video of him teaching students the famous song “Give Back to the People” attracted a lot of attention and support from Vietnamese both inside and outside of Vietnam.

The crackdown on freedom of expression in Vietnam continues to worsen, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 10, the Procuracy of Ninh Kieu District, Can Tho City, announced its conviction of Ma Phung Ngoc Phu for “abusing democratic freedoms to violate the interests of the State,” in accordance with Article 331 of the 2015 Criminal Code. The “investigation” claimed that Phu published 14 posts allegedly slandering the people’s regime and the Vietnamese government. Phu is also accused of commenting on other posts that defame the leaders of the Party and the State. In an example shared by Radio Free Asia, Phu had posted that: “We’ve just now received information about COVID-19 deaths in Vietnam. Why is state media not publishing this news?”

Phu faces up to seven years in prison if convicted. Vietnamese authorities have reportedly summoned more than 600 Facebookers for questioning relating to online posts about the current COVID-19 outbreak. These actions are part of a cohesive strategy by the Vietnamese government to control the flow of information surrounding the outbreak. While The 88 Project recognizes the need to share correct medical information in times like these, we also acknowledge that the Vietnamese authorities often arbitrarily target online users for their posts and also go to great lengths to censor criticism of the regime’s decisions or to silence dissenting voices.

Dinh Thi Thu Thuy during her arrest, Source: Facebook Dinh Van Hai
Authorities in Hau Giang arrested Dinh Thi Thu Thuy this week. The local police claimed that she was storing anti-government materials at her home, though they did not find any evidence. She is charged under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code for “conducting propaganda against the state.” On June 18, 2018, she was detained but released the same day. Her family reported the police had recently sent a few “invitations” for her to work with authorities, but she refused to comply; thus they went to her home to arrest her. Thuy is a single mother of a young son.

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

  • Freelance journalist Nguyen Van Hoa, birthday April 15, serving a seven-year prison sentence

  • Facebooker Nguyen Van Phuoc, arrested April 19, 2019, sentenced to five years in prison
  • Montagnard Christian activist A Hyum, arrested April 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison (expected to be released this month)
  • Former military officer Pham Thi Phuong, arrested April 2010 and sentenced to 11 years in prison
Activists at Risk

On April 16, 2020, at around 9:00 am, Cam Ranh City police in Khanh Hoa Province went to Facebooker Vu Phong’s house, detained him, and escorted him to an unknown location. Phong’s phone was then seized by the police. He was released later that night. Phong was arrested by plainclothes police officers, and they did not present an arrest warrant, only a police “invitation.” Phong is a delivery person who works in Ho Chi Minh City. However, due to the economic impact of COVID-19, he returned to his hometown.

Environmental Activism

Plaintiffs are continuing to pursue legal action to hold Taiwanese Formosa Plastics accountable to pay compensation to Vietnamese affected by the 2016 toxic waste spill that sparked an environmental crisis in central Vietnam. Taiwanese courts have struck down the lawsuit at the district and superior levels, citing a lack of jurisdiction in the case. Now, the groups bringing the lawsuit– including groups representing Catholic communities and migrant workers– are appealing the lower court decisions to Taiwan’s Supreme Court.

The groups were unable to pursue a lawsuit in Vietnam and claim that local police interfered in the filing of an appeal in Vietnam. The 2016 disaster left many locals without their livelihoods as pollution spread through the area. While Formosa did pay out some compensation to those affected, many argue that the compensation was inadequate and was settled on without having conversations with those actually affected by the disaster.

International Advocacy

The Vietnam Human Rights Network released a statement this week urging Vietnam to release political prisoners in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. They specifically called for the release of prisoners with medical conditions and older prisoners.

Nguyen Trung Ton
Relatives of 30 political prisoners also released an open letter this week in which they called for the release of their imprisoned family members. They expressed concern over unsanitary prison conditions and the inability to visit their loved ones during the crisis. Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton’s wife told Radio Free Asia that: “I am worried because the conditions in jail are not safe for the health of the prisoners and sick prisoners aren’t being examined.” Ton is still suffering from a years-old leg injury inflicted upon him in an attack by unknown thugs with special police equipment.

The Death Penalty

A new decree in Vietnam will have authorities temporarily halt executions if lethal drug injections are ineffective 10 minutes after the third try. Vietnam still permits the death penalty for 18 crimes, including some political crimes, such as subversion. The decree went into effect on April 15.


Vietnam introduces ‘fake news’ fines for coronavirus misinformation, Phuong Nguyen and James Pearson, Reuters, April 14, 2020: “A fine of 10-20 million dong ($426-$853), equivalent to around three to six months’ basic salary in Vietnam, will be imposed on people who use social media to share false, untruthful, distorted, or slanderous information, according to the decree. The new rules were not specifically drafted to deal with coronavirus social media comment and extend far beyond that topic, raising concern among human rights groups already heightened by a cybersecurity law that has been in effect since last year. Penalties can now be imposed on anyone sharing publications that are banned from circulation in Vietnam, state secrets, or maps which fail to show Vietnam’s claims in the South China Sea, according to the decree.”

Chinese Ship Returns Near Vietnam Border, Voice of America News, April 15, 2020: “Vietnam appeared to be rid of the Haiyang Dizhi problem, until this week. The Vietnamese government did not immediately comment on the arrival of the ship, which China sent less than two weeks after it sunk a Vietnamese boat with eight fishermen on board. The fishermen returned to safety. The United States has accused China of using the COVID-19 ‘distraction’ for a maritime advantage.”

Vietnam poised to be big post-pandemic winner, David Hutt, Asia Times, April 16, 2020: “If Vietnam is to have any success in making its case against China and to emerge as a regional spokesperson for resolving the issues, Hanoi will need to win the support of the wider international community, including in the West. Vietnam’s diplomacy in the recent years has been geared towards winning friends and potential allies in case of a conflict with China. In that vein, many analysts now consider Vietnam to be America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia.”

Looking beyond symbolism in US–Vietnam defence cooperation, Tu Lai, East Asia Forum, April 18, 2020: “Defence ties are increasing, but setbacks still exist and military cooperation is lagging behind other areas of US–Vietnam relations. Since the USS Carl Vinson’s port call in March 2018, there has been no major ship visit to Vietnam. Several defence engagement activities between the United States and Vietnam which were originally scheduled for 2019 have reportedly been cancelled. This does not live up to the US Department of Defense’s objective to build a ‘strategic partnership’ with Vietnam. No major arms deals have been conducted since the United States lifted the lethal weapons ban on Vietnam in 2016.”


Ho Duc Hoa and Truong Minh Duc

Take action for imprisoned journalists this week with the Committee to Protect Journalists and their #FreeThePress campaign, which urges global governments to immediately release jailed journalists in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Use the #FreeThePress hashtag on social media, share their open letter, and sign the petition. Take action, here. There are at least six jailed Vietnamese journalists (and several more bloggers); the journalists are Le Anh HungPham Chi DungNgo Van DungTruong Duy NhatHo Duc Hoa, and Truong Minh Duc.

© 2020 The 88 Project