Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 36/2020 – Week of September 7-13

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of September 7-13. News this week was dominated by the proceedings against 29 Dong Tam Commune residents who had been arrested in the wake of a violent police raid in January 2020 in their community, which is home to a longstanding land dispute with authorities. The raid left a village leader and three police officers dead and has been followed by heavy censorship of those reporting on the incident. The trial was plagued with procedural irregularities and ended after only four days. Two people have been recommended to be sentenced to death and one to life in prison. Three have been recommended to be sentenced to 16+ years in prison, sixteen to between 2-7 years, and the remaining defendants to probation. In the news and analysis section, read about Vietnam-Japan relations, an update on freedom of religion in Vietnam, and thoughts on the persecution of the Hien Phap constitutional rights group– many of whose members were arrested two years ago this week. Take action and show your support for the Dong Tam defendants.


Political Prisoners

The Dong Tam defendants at trial, September 8, 2020. Source: State Media via RFA.

This week, 29 defendants faced trial on charges of murder and resisting officials resulting from a violent, early-morning police raid in Dong Tam Commune in January 2020. The raid left a local land rights leader, Le Dinh Kinh, and three police officers, dead. Prior to the start of trial, the Ministry of Propaganda sent directives to all state-run media to paint defendants as “first attackers,” describe Kinh as “a degenerate party member,” stress that “most people agree the police had to act to protect the peace,” and not report proceedings from the trial, “especially any defense arguments detrimental to the government’s case.”

At the start of the trial, a “documentary” film produced by police was shown; it depicted the government’s version of events, as well as admissions of guilt by the defendants. When the lawyers objected to this not being factual evidence and that their clients confessed under duress, they were told, “Just watch it.” They also were denied the opportunity to talk to the defendants during the court recess.

Infographic on proposed penalties from the trial, from The Vietnamese

On the second day of the trial, defendant Bui Thi Noi, foster daughter of Le Dinh Kinh, stood up and directly questioned the prosecution, but was quickly led out of the room. Defendant Bui Van Hieu, who saw the shooting of Kinh, and who himself was shot at close range, but miraculously survived, was not allowed to be a witness for the defense. Before adjournment, attorney Dang Dinh Manh asked all 29 defendants to stand up if they were NOT tortured; only 10 stood up. On the third day of the trial, the Procuracy recommended the death penalty for two defendants, a life sentence for one,  and 16-18 years for three others (see the last column in the chart below, from Luat Khoa tap chi).

The chief judge announced that the trial would end before the planned 10 days because all defendants had confessed to their errors, asked for leniency, and requested that their lawyers stop defending them. He denied the lawyers’ request to re-examine key pieces of evidence surrounding the deaths of three police officers and again denied the lawyers’ request to speak with their clients during recess.

On the fourth day, after the prosecution wrapped up, defense lawyers did not get a chance to cross examine and argue their case against the Procuracy, as allowed by the law. Their request to see the disputed land claims and how Kinh died was refused; so was the request to see “Plan 419A”, the pre-approved plan of attack against Dong Tam, because it was deemed “top secret.” Subpoenas for key government witnesses were also denied. The lawyer for the three police officers killed argued “it is not necessary” to try to reconstruct the circumstances that led to his clients’ deaths by burning, even though this was the key event that caused several defendants to be charged with murder.

Defense attorneys on September 10, 2020. Source: Facebook, via Radio Free Asia 

The trial was stopped after the fourth day. No one from the defendants’ families was allowed inside the courtroom. Most were prevented from even leaving their homes. At least 10 who made it to Hanoi were detained outside the courthouse. Out of all family members, only the father of one of the three officers killed appeared in court; he was allowed to speak. After the trial ended, several lawyers were verbally and then physically harassed inside the courthouse when they tried to exercise their legal right to obtain the flash drive containing the trial proceedings. On their way to the airport, their cars were followed by non-uniformed men, but all eventually made it home unharmed.

The court is expected to announce their verdict on Monday, September 14. In a shocking development, Kinh’s widow made a video plea in which she said she’d be willing to jump into the hole and get burned to disprove the murder charges against her son and grandson. Read excellent day-by-day analysis of the events from the trial by The Vietnamese, here.

Nguyen Nang Tinh

Nguyen Thi Tinh, political prisoner Nguyen Nang Tinh’s wife, received her third summons by the Internal Political Security Bureau of Dong Thap Province to discuss her recent Facebook posts, which are alleged to have violated Decree 15. She is raising her two sons alone while her husband serves an 11-year sentence for exercising his freedom of speech. Working as a teacher 2000 km away from home, Tinh has been using Facebook simply to share her situation and her struggles with others, she said.

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

  • Nguyen Van Duc Do, birthday September 10, he was allegedly recently tortured in prison and is serving an 11-year sentence
  • Nguyen Trung Truc, member of the Brotherhood for Democracy, tried September 12, 2018, and sentenced to 12 years in prison
  • Montagnard Christian activist Chi, arrested September 2012, sentenced to eight years in prison, and expected to be released from prison sometime this month


Vietnam, Japan to maintain strategic ties after Abe, Phuong Pham, Asia Times, September 5, 2020: “With regard to bilateral security ties, in the post-Abe era, although Japan will make some adjustments in its defense policy, it will still seek to foster defense cooperation with Vietnam. According to an official account of the interaction released by Vietnam’s Defense Ministry, the two sides agreed to boost aspects of their defense ties this year. One may argue that Abe’s resignation could lead to a disruption in this agreement, as it is uncertain whether his successor of Abe will prioritize defense ties with Vietnam. Abe’s departure will unavoidably cause a postponement of joint Vietnam-Japan defense activities, at least in Japan’s leadership transition period. However, it would be far from the case that Vietnam-Japan security relations would be disrupted.”

The assault on Vietnam’s Hien Phap group, David Hutt, Asia Times, September 9, 2020: “Seldom in living memory has Vietnam’s national government backed down over a proposed law, especially one championed by a prime minister, in the face of public anger. For sure, local protests often force provincial or district officials into U-turns, but the SEZ law was billed as a major development for Vietnam’s economy, and its demise no doubt lost the national coffers hundreds of millions of dollars – and lost officials considerable sums in corruption kickbacks. But, as could be expected, the government took its revenge. Nine people associated with the Hien Phap group were arrested soon after the protests, most prosecuted because of comments made on social media and charged for ‘abusing democratic freedom’ – that most Orwellian of terms – or for ‘making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of Socialist Republic of Vietnam,’ Article 118 of the hated Penal Code.

Indonesia, Vietnam: Follow International Law to Resolve South China Sea Dispute, Radio Free Asia, September 9, 2020: “On Wednesday, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that ASEAN would continue to promote dialogue and non-militarization while refraining from complicating the situation in the South China Sea. A series of ASEAN ministerial meetings are planned this week, including the ASEAN Regional Forum on Saturday. The 27-country forum includes the 10 ASEAN members along with Russia, Japan, Australia, the U.S., China, South Korea, and India.”

Religion Bulletin – July 2020, The Vietnamese, September 5, 2020: “In the [The Government Hand] and [On This Day] we explore why religions are not able to grow in the face of strict government discriminatory policies regarding land rights. In the section [Religion 360°] read about how the government continues to harass Falun Gong proselytizers, about four religious rights activists in the Central Highlands who were interrogated and other monthly news.”

Post-Abe, Vietnam-Japan Relations Have Nowhere to Go But Up, Hanh Nguyen, The Diplomat, September 11, 2020: “There are good reasons to believe that Japan-Vietnam relations will continue on their present upward trajectory. To a large extent, the strong bilateral partnership has been born out of a shared concern about China’s waxing power and influence. Both Japan and Vietnam have territorial and maritime disputes with China in the East China Sea and South China Sea, respectively. But their concerns also run deeper. Both nations have had complex interactions with China through history, absorbing large amounts of influences from China while resisting its encroachments. As a result, neither wishes to assume a subordinate position in a new Sino-centric order.”


Show your support for the Dong Tam Commune residents this week. Eleven human rights organizations sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling on the Council to denounce the trial. They said that Vietnamese authorities had failed to uphold its commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, such as allowing the defendants to access legal preparations while in pre-trial detention. They urged Vietnam to hold a “fair and open trial.”
© 2020 The 88 Project