Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 38/2020 – Week of September 21-27

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 21-27. Trinh Ba Phuong’s wife has been questioned by police about his activism, and Phuong has remained silent while in pre-trial detention. Coming up next week, we will release a video interview with Phuong, filmed before his arrest. Political prisoner Nguyen Hong Nguyen was released from prison this week.  A Dong Tam resident has reported continued harassment against villagers in the wake of the trial, and two prominent activists have released a report on Dong Tam. Read about international advocacy actions this week by the US government, EU Members of Parliament (MEPs), and Israeli activists. In case you missed it, read our in-depth report on the Build-Operate-Transfer movement in Vietnam. In the news and analysis section, check out a history of land rights conflicts in Vietnam. And take action this week by sharing the letter from EU MEPs to the EU trade commissioner.


Political Prisoners 

Trinh Ba Phuong 

Do Thi Thu received another summons for interrogation about her husband, Trinh Ba Phuong. On September 24, Thu went to the Duong Noi Ward Police Department for questioning. Thu said the police didn’t ask her much. They wanted to know if Phuong has a problem with depression because the past few months he has remained silent and will not talk to the investigating officers. The  police said that he spends most of his time sitting and closing his eyes as if in meditation. Thu said her husband has no previous mental illness. They also asked her about dissident writer Pham Doan Trang, as well as about Phuong’s human rights work. She told them that she’s busy with her children and so didn’t pay attention to that. They also told her it would be best if she didn’t livestream about this meeting.

Facebooker Nguyen Hong Nguyen was released from prison on September 22 after completing his two-year sentence. He was arrested in June 2018. Nguyen lived in Australia for many years, and he understood the values of freedom of speech, freedom of press and democracy. Therefore, on his Facebook, he usually shared and liked the articles on socio-political issues.

Last week, public security officers in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Quach Duy, a civil servant, on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms” under Article 331 of the 2015 Criminal Code. He was charged with allegedly posting information critical of the state on his Facebook page.

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

  • Veteran and democracy activist Tran Anh Kim, arrested September 21, 2015, and sentenced to 13 years in prison
  • Democracy activist Nguyen Viet Dung, arrested September 27, 2017, and sentenced to six years in prison Online commentator
  • Doan Khanh Vinh Quang, tried on September 24, 2018, and sentenced to two years and three months in prison
  • Facebooker Bui Manh Dong, tried on September 27, 2018, and sentenced to two years and six months in prison
  • Fifteen June 2018 protesters tried in a large trial on September 26, 2018, and sentenced to between two and four and a half years in prison each (photo source)
Community at Risk

A Dong Tam villager contacted a news organization in California to report on continued pressure being applied by authorities after the trial of 29 Dong Tam villagers earlier this month. The person said defendants were tortured into making confessions. Le Dinh Chuc, Le Dinh Cong, and Bui Viet Hieu initially refused to comply; it wasn’t until they were told that members of their families could be executed that they “confessed” to the charges against them. Le Dinh Kinh’s daughter-in-law has been constantly harassed, and her shop faces threats of being closed because no one will lease her the space. Each family still has one member in prison who is used as a hostage to maintain pressure against them speaking out in public. The person who reported these updates requested anonymity to be safe.

Dong Tam defendants at trial, Source: Reuters 

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. Read Pham Doan Trang and Will Nguyen’s in-depth report on the Dong Tam conflict and aftermath, here.

International Advocacy

Nguyen Bac Truyen

In the case of political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen, Boat People SOS (BPSOS) is expediting a letter to be sent to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by September 28, in time for the State Department to consider adding Truyen’s case to the agenda for its annual dialogue on human rights and religious freedom with Hanoi on October 6. The recent early release of Pastor A Dao from prison is an indication that external pressure on the Vietnamese authorities can be effective and should be continued.

As part of another US government advocacy project, the Defending Freedoms Project of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, US Congressman Alan Lowenthal has adopted political prisoner Nguyen Van Hoa. The congressman said of Hoa: “He is a man of conviction, who has been wrongly abused, detained, and imprisoned for trying to cover issues important to the Vietnamese people, but which are uncomfortable for the Vietnamese government to hear.” Hoa is a blogger who was arrested in 2017 after writing about the Formosa protests; he is serving seven years in prison and has faced mistreatment behind bars amounting to torture.

Sixty-four EU Members of Parliament sent a letter to the EU trade commissioner urging the body to rectify past mistakes in signing the EVFTA trade agreement without sufficiently demanding that Vietnam abide by its commitments toward protecting human rights. In the run-up to the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party in January, the EU is urged: 1) to apply more pressure on Hanoi to free political prisoners; 2) to establish an independent monitoring mechanism; 3) to set up a Domestic Advisory Group in-country whose members are free from interference and harassment; 4) to report to the EU Parliament any violations by Vietnam; and 5) to remind Hanoi of the “legally binding link between the PCA and the EVFTA, and of the possibility to trigger the human rights clause to partly or wholly suspend the deals…”

Fifty-four Israeli activists have submitted a petition to the District Court in Tel Aviv requesting that the government “stop Israeli military exports, due to their use as a means for domestic repression and human rights violations in Vietnam.” Vietnam currently ranks third in arms imports from Israel. Vietnam also uses Israeli surveillance systems and plans to import Israeli drones in the future.

The UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French, delivered a statement during the General Debate at the UN Human Rights Council in which she raised concerns about several countries. Regarding Vietnam she said: “We are concerned about restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly in Vietnam. We call for the better protection of journalists, and for all citizens to have access to free, independent, media.”


This Land Is Our Land: 100 Years Of Blood Spilled Over Land Rights In Vietnam, Y Chan, The Vietnamese, September 17, 2020: “Throughout this 100 years, Vietnamese people have gone from Noc Nan Field to Senh Field, from Ninh Thanh Loi Village to Lac Nhue Village, from the Tay Nguyen Uprising to the Thai Binh Uprising, from Dak Nong Province to Hai Phong Province, and still there is no end in sight for the land ownership disputes. We will take a look at 10 notorious cases of land disputes in Vietnam over the past 100 years.”

There’s no such thing as a Southeast Asian ‘strongman,’ David Hutt, Asia Times, September 19, 2020: “The authoritarian leader, however, exists within a system where self-doubt and introspection are rarely possible, since they rarely allow themselves to hear any criticism. And because they are so risk-adverse, authoritarian governments must act as though one critical comment or one protest (shocks to the system, in other words) is so dangerous to stability that they must be suppressed as immediately as possible. As such, the authoritarian regime builds within its own structure an inherent fragility, while democracies are imbibed with anti-fragility. Put another way, democracy is a method to prevent political atrophy; authoritarianism isn’t.”


A stand-off between drivers, residents, and the traffic police at Cai Lay BOT toll booth. Souce: Nam Thai/TTXVN
The anti-Build–Operate–Transfer (BOT) movement has been one of the biggest movements in Vietnamese civil society during the first two decades of the 21st Century. Beginning in 2017, public dissatisfaction with oddly placed BOT toll booths began to grow and the movement gained momentum when professional drivers, everyday road-users, and the local residents realized how lucrative and abusive the BOT business was. Our report aims to highlight the problematic legal framework of BOT projects, how the system is prone to corruption, and the importance of the 2018 BOT protest movement. Read the full report here.


Take action this week by sharing the letter from 64 EU Members of Parliament to the EU trade commissioner calling for enhanced human rights in the implementation of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement.
© 2020 The 88 Project