Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 37/2020 – Week of September 14-20

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 14-20. Read our analysis of the Dong Tam trial and sentencing here. Montagnard Christian Pastor A Dao has been released early from prison, and Khmer Krom farmer Huynh Dang Diep has also been released after having been held for three months for investigation after a land dispute with local authorities. Authorities in Binh Duong arrested Le Van Hai for his online posts about his family’s land dispute with local authorities. And in an arbitrary transfer, political prisoner Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong was moved to a new prison without his family being first notified. Dr. Nguyen Quang A was detained and interrogated while on his way to meet with the US ambassador. In the news and analysis section, read about the appeals process for the Dong Tam defendants and Vietnam’s borrowed online censorship tactics. Take action this week by sharing one of many statements in support of the Dong Tam defendants.


Political Prisoners

Defendants at trial, Source: Reuters

On September 7, 29 defendants from Dong Tam faced trial in Hanoi 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. On September 14, after a trial that was cut short and was also riddled with procedural irregularities, two defendants– both sons of Kinh– were sentenced to death and one person to life in prison. Others received sentences ranging from suspended sentences to 16 years in prison. Several defendants alleged that they were tortured while awaiting trial.

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 records of the disputed land claims and how Kinh died was refused; so was the request to review “Plan 419A”, the pre-approved plan of attack against Dong Tam, because it was deemed a “national 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 events that led to his clients’ deaths by burning, even though this was the key event that caused several defendants to be charged with murder. After the trial, lawyers for the defendants were harassed, and supporters were subjected to attacks by pro-government online users. Lawyers for the defendants have until September 30 to appeal. Read our full analysis of the trial and sentencing, here. 

A Dao and Nguyen Bac Truyen 

Commissioner James Carr of the US Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported that Pastor A Dao of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ has been released early after serving four years of his five-year pirson sentence. He was arrested in August 2016, after returning from a conference on religious freedom in East Timor. Commissioner Carr stated, “I hope this release is a sign that the Vietnamese government is serious about improving religious freedom conditions and will release other individuals detained for their religious freedom advocacy, including Nguyen Bac Truyen.” Truyen, a business professional, is a human rights and religious freedom activist serving 11 years in prison.

Huynh Dang Diep was released from detention over the weekend of September 5-6. He had been detained for three months while he was under investigation. It is unclear if there are charges against him. Authorities in Kien Giang Province arrested six family members for their participation in a land dispute in a Khmer Krom community in May– they were all later released, except Diep. The Khmer Krom, an ethnic minority group, has long faced harassment and discrimination from the state. The 88 Project has confirmed the release directly with people who know the situation.

Le Van Hai was arrested in Binh Duong Province for his online posts. He was charged under Article 331 of the 2015 Criminal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms.” Hai had posted his opinions online about a land dispute involving his family’s land after his attempts to send complaints about the matter went unanswered. According to Radio Free Asia, “Le had also sent many complaints to Binh Dinh authorities asking for compensation payments because his family’s house and land had been confiscated to build a wastewater treatment plant in Qui Nhon.”

Authorities transferred political prisoner Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong from Trai Mat prison, Lam Dong Province, to An Phuoc detention center in Binh Duong Province, more than 300 km from his family’s home. The family didn’t learn about the transfer until three days after it happened. A protester and popular Facebooker, Vuong was tried on July 7, 2020, and sentenced to eight years in prison under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code for “propaganda against the state.”

After Vuong’s family found out that he had been transferred, his brother decided to visit him. He completed all of the registration procedures and waited until the afternoon until he was allowed to see Vuong. It had been almost a year since the brothers had been able to see each other, following Vuong’s arrest. The meeting lasted for 30 minutes under close supervision. His brother reported that Vuong is healthy, mentally sharp, and strong. After being in prison for almost a year, Vuong hadn’t been allowed to contact his family. He was told that everyone had abandoned him. His brother told him that was a lie. Vuong was happy to hear that and asked his brother to thank everyone.

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

  • Deceased activist and retired teacher, Dao Quang Thuc, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison on September 19, 2018, and died unexpectedly in prison in late 2019
  • Montagnard Christians Dinh NongKsor KamPuih Bop, and Ro Lan Kly, all tried in September 2016 and sentenced to between eight-nine years in prison each
  • Citizen journalist Do Cong Duong, tried on September 17, 2018 (one of two trials), and sentenced to a combined eight years in prison
  • Facebooker Nguyen Van Cong Em, tried on September 17, 2019, and sentenced to five years in prison
  • Catholic social activist Nguyen Van Oai, tried on September 18, 2017, and sentenced to five years in prison
  • Driver and BOT protester Tran Dinh Sang, tried September 18, 2019, and sentenced to two years in prison
Activists at Risk
Photo of Nguyen Quang A

Prominent intellectual and activist Dr Nguyen Quang A was detained on his way to the residence of US Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink for an afternoon coffee at the invitation of the ambassador. Hanoi police held him against his will and did not allow him to make any phone calls. He was released after a few hours of questioning about his Facebook posts, especially those in relation to Dong Tam.

International Advocacy 

The EU External Action Service has issued a statement expressing its serious concerns regarding “the conditions and proceedings of the trial” against the Dong Tam defendants. It urged Vietnam to put a moratorium on the use of the death penalty “as a first step towards abolition… The EU and its Member States strongly advocate for the rule of law and for the full right to a fair trial, as stipulated in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a signatory party.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said of the trial: “ Vietnam’s rulers are bending over backwards to show their toughest possible face against the Dong Tam villagers because they worry this community’s defiance could be contagious unless the defendants are hit with the most severe penalties. With the ruling communist party’s national congress just a few months away, there was never a possibility of anything but a rushed trial through a controlled court that would throw the book at these defendants.” Read also a statement from Vietnam Human Rights Network and Defend and Defenders about the trial.

The UN has issued its 2020 report on intimidation and reprisal against individuals who report human rights abuses. The report mentions the cases of Dr. Nguyen Tien Dung, who was not allowed to travel Geneva to attend the UPR session on Vietnam; six Cao Dai Buddhists who were prevented from traveling to Thailand to attend the SEAFORB convention on religious beliefs, as well as four Catholics who were harassed as they came back from that convention;  two female activists working on human rights issues; and particularly political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen, a Hoa Hao Buddhist who is serving an 11-year sentence.

The Human Rights Council’s 45th session for ISHR (International Services for Human Rights) is taking place in Geneva from September 14 to  October 6. The Council will consider issues including reprisals, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances, among others.


The Dong Tam Case: What happens next?, Y Chan, The Vietnamese, September 15, 2020: “On September 14, 2020, the Hanoi People’s Court delivered the judgments in the trial of the Dong Tam case. What will happen next? First of all, we need to understand this is a first-instance trial and the judgments have not yet come into force. The enforcement of criminal judgments therefore is not yet initiated.”

Vietnam’s Dong Tam Incident: the Curtain Falls, David Brown, Asia Sentinel, September 14, 2020: “The guilty verdict was no surprise. This was a show trial ordained and orchestrated by the institutions of the Vietnamese state. Prisoner after prisoner uttered virtually identical confessions: ‘I apologize to the families of the police officers who were lost; I thank our teachers in the prison who taught us how we erred; I thank my lawyers but now no longer need his [sic] services; and finally, I ask for a lighter sentence.’ The regime in Hanoi takes a dim view of the agrarian protests. In party doctrine and Vietnamese law, the land belongs to the people and the state manages it on their behalf. If farmers persist in asserting their right to till plots of land when the party/state has decreed some other use for it, even if they only insist on being paid what it is worth, they risk being labeled ‘rioters and terrorists,’ forcibly removed, and in exemplary cases, prosecuted.”

How Vietnam has borrowed from China’s online censorship playbook, South China Morning Post, Dien Nguyen An Luong, September 14, 2020: “What is apparent is how the Vietnamese authorities have increasingly kept close tabs on public online discourses and tried to be as responsive as they could. As argued elsewhere, social media is a concern for Chinese authorities, not so much for the public criticism, but more so for its ability to fuel collective action or organise protests. This is perhaps one of the most important chapters that Vietnam, a country that prizes political stability above all else, has taken from China’s online censorship playbook.”

Three-Horse Race for Vietnam’s Next Communist Party Chief, David Hutt, The Diplomat, September 14, 2020: “We are now entering the business end of the period of horse-trading and politicking that typically dominates the months leading up to the National Congress of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party. At this quinquennial event, a new 180-strong Central Committee is elected by 1,600 delegates from across the country and the most important political offices change hands. The next National Congress, the 13th in the Party’s history, is expected to take place in January, barring any pandemic-related postponement. Who becomes State President is the most pressing question this time around. Rumors abound that there could be a permanent merger between this largely-ceremonial head of state position and that of Party General Secretary, the most senior leadership role of the Communist Party.”


Take action to show your support for the Dong Tam defendants and call on Vietnam to end its use of the death penalty by sharing one of the statements in the “International Advocacy” section above.

© 2020 The 88 Project