Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 2/2021 – Week of January 11-17

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of January 11-17. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc has passed the 50-day mark of his hunger strike and remains in a precarious health situation; read our commentary about the international perception of hunger strikes and why Vietnamese activists often have to resort to hunger strikes to advocate for themselves and other prisoners. Female activist Dinh Thi Thu Thuy’s trial has been set for January 25. Behind bars, 72 year-old activist Chau Van Kham has been subjected to hard labor, and journalist Ngo Van Dung was transferred to a new prison and denied a visit with his wife. In international advocacy news, read Human Rights Watch’s 2020 report on Vietnam, learn about efforts to get global leaders to impose Magnitsky Act sanctions on Vietnamese authorities, and see a portrait series of at-risk journalists. Take action this week in solidarity with Chau Van Kham, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, and Nguyen Van Hoa.


Political Prisoners

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc passed the 50-day mark of his hunger strike. It is not known whether Thuc has been treated for medical care or what his current condition is. He started his hunger strike on November 23 to appeal his sentence based on the new penal code, which he argues should reduce his prison term to time already served. Inquiries about Thuc to the US and German embassies did not yield any answers. Thuc was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for his economic and political writings. Read our analysis of his hunger strike, and the case for why international organizations should support him, here.

After nine months in temporary detention, online commentator Dinh Thi Thu Thuy will finally have her day in court, set for January 25, five days before the start of the National Congress. She’s been charged with “anti-state propaganda” for online posts about the environment and other matters. Thuy was held incommunicado for seven months before she was allowed to see her family. A 39-year-old environmental engineer, she has a 10-year-old son who is staying with her mother. In June 2018, she participated in protests against two controversial bills regarding Special Economic Zones and Cybersecurity, for which she became a target of police harassment.

Vietnamese Australian citizen Chau Van Kham, who is serving 12 years in prison for alleged “terrorist activities,” is reported to have been subjected to long hours of hard labor in prison. Kham is a member of the Viet Tan group, which aims to bring freedom and democracy to Vietnam, but which is labeled a terrorist organization by the government. Since his arrest and imprisonment in 2019, Kham’s family has not been allowed to communicate with him. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has raised Kham’s case with Vietnam nine times but to no avail. Kham spent his 72nd birthday in prison last week.

Journalist Ngo Van Dung has been transferred to Bo La Detention Center, Phu Giao District, Binh Duong Province. His wife went to visit him on January 16, but was not allowed to see her husband; Dung was only allowed to accept money from his wife to buy supplies from the prison canteen. Dung is serving five years in prison for “disrupting security.”

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

  • Blogger Nguyen Van Hoa, arrested January 11, 2017, and sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of conducting “propaganda against the state”

  • Online commentator Chung Hoang Chuong, arrested January 12, 2020, and sentenced to one year and six months in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms”
  • Australian retiree and pro-democracy activist Chau Van Kham, arrested January 13, 2019, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for “terrorism”

  • Brotherhood for Democracy activist Nguyen Van Vien, arrested January 13, 2019, and sentenced to 11 years in prison for “terrorism”
  • Montagnard Christian activist Rmah Hlach, tried on January 14, 2010, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for “undermining the unity policy”
International Advocacy 

Human Rights Watch has issued its 2021 World Report. It describes 2020 as “another abysmal year in Vietnam. Through 2020, the police arrested several vocal dissidents and detained numerous others for speaking their minds and exercising their basic free expression rights.” It calls on the US and the new Biden administration to “embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy” going forward. Read a detailed month-by-month synopsis from the report here.

Families of political prisoners are calling on foreign governments to impose Magnitsky sanctions on Vietnamese officials for torture and abuses committed in prisons. The sanctions have been used on Chinese officials for abuses in Xinjiang, but have yet to be applied to Vietnamese officials who typically seek to send their money and children to the US to establish a “safe landing.” In a statement, the EU Delegation to Vietnam said, “The European Union will continue to monitor and work with the Vietnamese authorities and all relevant stakeholders to improve the human rights situation in Vietnam.”

BP-SOS has made 2021 the year in which it will work with the EU to use the Magnitsky Act against a number of Vietnamese leaders to apply more pressure while the US goes through its transition phase. Within the first three months of the year, BP-SOS plans to release a docket of potential targets to help EU governments in their assessment. It also calls on Vietnamese abroad to assist their local governments to bring these cases to the attention of their legislators. Australia appears likely to pass its version of the Magnitsky Act this year, with Japan to soon follow.

Portrait of journalist Long Trinh, Source: The Netherlands/Unesco for the World Press Freedom Conference 

The Netherlands and UNESCO launched a project to bring at-risk journalists’ stories and portraits to a global audience as part of their activities hosting the World Press Freedom Conference this year. This visual feature highlights the cases of two Vietnamese journalists, Trinh Huu Long and Chau, who have faced persecution for their work.

From left to right: Nguyen Tuong Thuy, Le Huu Minh Tuan, and Pham Chi Dung at trial on January 5, 2021, Source: Vietnam News Agency via Reuters/NY Times

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a stark statement about the harsh sentences Vietnam has just handed down for three independent journalists. “Coming just weeks ahead of the National Congress of the Communist Party, the convictions and long sentences are not only a blatant suppression of independent journalism but also a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those willing to criticise the government.” The UN calls for their immediate release; its Special Rapporteurs are currently in contact with the authorities.


Facebook banned Trump but has failed to react quickly to other leaders who incited violence, Shashank Bengali, LA Times, January 15, 2021: “But the company has often been late to recognize or remove inflammatory speech in non-English languages, in nations where civic institutions are weak and where it does not maintain full-time staff. In some countries, such as Vietnam and India, Facebook has deliberately ignored its own standards in order to placate powerful governments and to protect its business. ‘We realized years ago that Facebook as a global tech company does not enforce its own platform rules equally or consistently across the world,’ said Nalaka Gunawardene, a media analyst in Sri Lanka. ‘Some markets seem more important to them economically and politically.’”

Vietnam’s omission from Chinese foreign minister’s Southeast Asia tour tells a story, observers say, Shi Jiangtao, South China Morning Post, January 16, 2021: “Observers say Wang skipping Vietnam lays bare the growing antagonism and tensions between the old Communist allies over their South China Sea dispute, which have been compounded by the US factor and uncertainties over internal power politics in Hanoi. While Asean overtook the European Union as China’s top trading partner last year, Vietnam replaced Germany as China’s sixth-largest trading partner, thanks to the surging two-way trade between Beijing and Hanoi despite strained political ties and the coronavirus pandemic.”

Gutting the press, Thomas A Bass, Mekong Review, January 2021: “Pham Chi Dung, founder and president of Vietnam’s Independent Journalists Association (IJA) received the longest sentence (fifteen years). His two colleagues, Le Huu Minh Tuan and Nguyen Tuong Thuy, received eleven-year sentences. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this brings to fifteen the number of Vietnamese journalists currently imprisoned. I met Dung in Ho Chi Minh City in 2015, when he described himself as living ‘like a fish under the blade’. I wrote about it my book, Censorship in Vietnam, published two years later—from which the following is excerpted.”


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. Now past the 50-day mark, his health condition is critical. Take action in support of Thuc here. 

This month marks four years since Catholic blogger Nguyen Van Hoa was arrested after reporting on the 2016 Formosa environmental disaster. See a list of actions you can take to support him and call for his release here.

Sign a statement from Amnesty International to express solidarity with political prisoner Chau Van Kham.

© 2021 The 88 Project