Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 39/2020 – Week of September 28-October 4

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 28-October 4. Authorities arrested a lecturer for alleged slander against a Community Party official, and they have also extended the pre-trial investigation period for journalist Pham Chi Thanh, and possibly for Nguyen Tuong Thuy. Seven Dong Tam villagers have appealed their sentences. Imprisoned author Tran Duc Thach received a prestigious international award. In international news, read about developments in the UK and Vietnam’s trade partnership and the Intimidation and Reprisal Report presented at the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council. In the news and analysis section, there are articles about the state religious apparatus in Vietnam, the US moves against Vietnam’s currency, and worries about censorship ahead of Vietnam’s upcoming National Party Congress. In case you missed it, watch this in-depth interview with now-imprisoned land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong, and please take action by sharing the video.


Political Prisoners

Pham Dinh Quy, via BBC Vietnamese

Pham Dinh Quy, lecturer at Ton Duc Thang University, was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City and charged under Article 156 of the 2015 Criminal Code for alleged slander against a Communist Party official in Dak Lak Province. Pham was disappeared on September 23 but was not charged until September 30. Authorities have already removed the articles in question and fined a web site that had published the content, as well as temporarily shut it down. The item in question is an abstract of a thesis written by the Party official which showed evidence of plagiarism. It is not clear why this is not a civil lawsuit and why the Dak Lak authorities were not asked to get involved instead.

Pham Chi Thanh and Nguyen Tuong Thuy

Two members of the unsanctioned Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) had their pre-trial detentions extended without their families being informed. Pham Chi Thanh, arrested in May, had his detention extended by four months on charges of engaging in “anti-state propaganda”. The organization’s vice-president, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, also arrested in May and similarly charged, may also have had his detention extended without notice. In recent weeks, authorities have extended the detention periods for other IJAVN members as well.

Dong Tam defendants at trial on September 14, 2020. Source: State media via Radio Free Asia

The last Dong Tam defendant filed an appeal on September 29, the final day to do so. Bui Thi Noi, the foster daughter of the  late Le Dinh Kinh, joined six other defendants in appealing their sentences, five of which are for “murder”; the others are appealing sentencing for “resisting officials conducting state business.” Noi was the only defendant who was handed a harsher sentence than recommended by the prosecution. She also was the only one who spoke out during the trial and who questioned the judges. Read our analysis of the trial here.

After five years without any recipient, the Paris-based ‘Nguyen Chi Thien POC Award’ has been given to poet Tran Duc Thach. Thach is a veteran of the North Vietnamese Army who was arrested in May of this year and charged with “anti-state activities.” In 2008, he also was imprisoned for three years for his poetry, which was deemed “propaganda against the state.” Thach’s wife says she has not been able to see her husband since July and is very concerned about his health even though his spirit remains strong.

International Advocacy

At a meeting in Hanoi on September 30, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab secured Hanoi’s backing for the UK to join the CPTPP, formally known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The two governments also agreed to refresh the strategic partnership between Vietnam and the post-Brexit UK for another 10 years. Beyond trade, education, security and military cooperation, the partnership also promotes “human rights, including promoting gender equality and tackling modern slavery.”

The Intimidation and Reprisal Report was presented at the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council on September 30. This year Vietnam ranks second only to China in the number of cases of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders – 16. Of those, 12 were members of non-state religious communities or human rights activists who tried to take part in, or who had participated in, a conference in Bangkok in 2019. Vietnam’s representative has  responded to the UNHCR report, asking the committee to “substantiate the sources and takes the government’s information in a serious and objective manner in order to make the report more credible.”

Nguyen Bac Truyen

Three US representatives wrote to Mike Pompeo ahead of the US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue on October 6, urging him to press the government to “show a willingness to improve the conditions for personal freedoms within Vietnam.” They specifically mention religious freedom advocate and political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen as a case of particular concern and ask that he be released as a demonstration of good faith.

Several human rights groups released a statement condemning the Vietnamese government’s conviction of the Dong Tam villagers after the violent police raid there in January 2020 and also its decision to invoke the death penalty in the sentencing of two defendants. “We call on the international community to demand the Vietnamese authorities to immediately stay the death sentences of Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc and to open an independent and public inquiry of the case, particularly the decision to send 3,000 armed police in the dark of night to attack the Dong Tam village and to execute Mr. Le Dinh Kinh in the process.”


Asean is falling short in duty to protect citizens’ human rights, Charles Santiago, South China Morning Post, September 29, 2020: “The Covid-19 crisis has showcased what liberties authoritarians will take when presented with an opportunity to strengthen their hold on power. To safeguard against the rise of authoritarianism, we must strengthen parliamentary oversight – especially when it comes to human rights – and find ways for citizens to better participate in democracies. The expected increased embrace of technology could create new opportunities for governments and parliamentarians to improve people‘s involvement in democracies.”

Vietnam throws UK a post-Brexit lifeline, David Hutt, Asia Times, September 30, 2020: “The EU-Vietnam trade pact took many years to negotiate and was finally ratified by both sides on August 1. Britain’s talks with Hanoi will also likely be much quicker. The UK ambassador to Vietnam, Gareth Ward, said during a recent online conference that he expects a trade pact to be reached by the end of the year. UK-Vietnam relations were upgraded to a ‘strategic partnership’ in 2010. Six years later, David Cameron became the first British prime minister to visit post-war Vietnam. Relations were also helped by the arrival of experienced diplomat Tran Ngoc An as Vietnam’s Ambassador to the UK in 2017. The UK is seeking to play a much bigger role in Southeast Asia’s affairs, part of its Brexit-inspired strategy of a ‘global Britain’ that will look back ‘east of the Suez’, as current Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in 2016 when serving as foreign secretary.”

Vietnam: What Does The Government Committee For Religious Affairs Do With More Than 64 Billion Dong Every Year?, Will Nguyen, The Vietnamese, September 28, 2020: “Today, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs has become the ‘Church’ of all churches in Vietnam, at once interfering in the internal affairs of religions while also trying to determine the ‘religious standards’ for society. Different from democratic countries, where religious organizations operate independently, religious organizations in Vietnam that want official recognition must operate as though they were a government body. On that front, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs functions as an intermediary for the state to control religious activities.”

Trump takes trade war aim at Vietnam’s dong, David Hutt, Asia Times, October 1, 2020: “As such, anti-China officials in the Trump administration should arguably consider the growing trade deficit with Vietnam as a trade war success, a realization of Washington’s stated long-term ambition of ‘decoupling’ from the Chinese market. Punishing Vietnam for this augmented trade deficit would in some sense be responding to a situation that it created, analysts argue. Another reason why the US should arguably tread lightly with Vietnam – and one imagines officials from the State and Defense Department are lobbying their colleagues in the Treasury to do so – is because Vietnam has emerged as a major US geopolitical ally. Washington has backed Hanoi’s over Beijing’s claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, and the US navy has engaged in many freedom of navigation exercises in those waters.”

Censorship fears grow in Vietnam as cybersecurity law looms, The Star, October 1, 2020: “Vietnam is tightening its grip on Internet freedoms by rolling out a highly controversial cybersecurity law that requires Internet companies to remove content deemed ‘anti-state’, mere months ahead of the country’s National Congress in January, which gathers only every five years. The legislation essentially demands that Facebook and Google set up local offices and servers in Vietnam if they wish to continue operating in the country. The tech giants have thus far refused to comply with the request, but they have been forced to respond to censorship pressures nonetheless. Although the law technically went into effect on Jan 1, 2019, businesses were given 12 months to comply, and the government still has not published a draft decree with the official guidelines. It is expected to be published before the National Congress in the coming weeks or months, when the law will show its full effect.”


Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong (right) holding signs saying: “Freedom for my Mother” at a praying mass for victims of injustice. Source: Facebook Trinh Ba Phuong
Watch or read an interview with imprisoned land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong, conducted shortly before his June 2020 arrest. “I think I’m pretty easy going, not the picky type,” he says when asked to describe himself. Even the public security officer who had been assigned to follow him for years said he was a nice guy, Phuong joked to the interviewer. This intimate video covers a variety of topics, ranging from his background to his relationship with his family. Phuong has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest in June 2020.


Take action this week by sharing the video interview with Trinh Ba Phuong. Phuong is a well-known activist who is very active in issues of land rights in his own community as well as advocating for the Dong Tam residents in the aftermath of the deadly police raid there in January 2020. He has been harassed and watched by police for years, and he was arrested in June 2020 for his peaceful activism.
© 2020 The 88 Project