Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 42/2020 – Week of October 19-25

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of October 19-25. Authorities in Dong Nai Province have arrested yet another online commentator. Nguyen Quang Khai was arrested on October 20 for his Facebook posts critical of the state. State media is ramping up a smear campaign to discredit imprisoned dissident writer Pham Doan Trang, and the government has finished its investigation into three detained members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. US citizen Michael Nguyen was released early from prison. Imprisoned pastor Nguyen Bac Truyen has won the Stefanus Prize 2020. And Japan is strengthening its strategic relations with Vietnam, despite human rights concerns. In case you missed it, read our analysis of the Dong Tam trial in light of Vietnam’s commitments under international law. And take action by sharing this inspiring video interview with Pham Doan Trang.


Political Prisoners

Nguyen Quang Khai, Source: RFA

On October 20, authorities in Dong Nai Province arrested Nguyen Quang Khai under article 337 of the 2015 Criminal Code (“distributing or collecting state secrets and other materials”) for his Facebook posts about national issues and criticism of the Communist regime. Khai had previously been questioned by police about his online commentary and an alleged connection to pro-democracy overseas group Viet Tan. If convicted, he faces between two and 10 years in prison.

Pham Doan Trang being taken away during her October 6, 2020 arrest, Source: Will Nguyen

The People’s Police newspaper has begun a smear campaign against Pham Doan Trang, calling her a reactionary agitator who authors “dirty books” and who is involved with, as well as receives money from, foreign entities such as Viet Tan and VOICE. It says her illegally published books misrepresent the truth about freedom and human rights in Vietnam. The article also links Doan Trang to the Hanoi-based environmental group Green Trees and accuses its members of spreading anti-state materials as well. It also calls Can Thi Theu and her sons, already arrested in June, accomplices in Doan Trang’s alleged network of abusers of free speech. Doan Trang was arrested on October 6, the same day that the US and Vietnam held their annual Human Rights Dialogue.

In this short but succinct interview that was filmed prior to her arrest, Pham Doan Trang discusses her activism in starkly personal detail. Trang explains her goals and wishes, not just for herself but also for the groups she’s been involved with. She describes certain negative patterns she sees with many human rights organizations in Vietnam and suggests ways to improve.

In a surprise move by Vietnam, US citizen Michael Phuong Minh Nguyen was released from prison and returned to the United States this week. His wife has confirmed that her husband arrived safely in Orange County, California, on October 22. Phuong Nguyen was arrested in June, 2018 while on his way from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City and was held incommunicado for weeks before his family was notified. He was charged with “conspiracy to overthrow the government of Vietnam” and sentenced to 12 years in prison. It is not yet known why he was released early. This is a developing story.

Nguyen Tuong Thuy, Le Huu Minh Tuan, and Pham Chi Dung

The government has finished its investigation of Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan. The two independent journalists, who have been detained since their arrest in May, along with Pham Chi Dung, who was arrested in November last year, have been charged under Article 117, “making, storing or distributing information against the state.” Thuy’s wife said their lawyer will be Nguyen Van Mieng. All three are affiliated with the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Some observers expect that the trial against the three will be held soon.

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

  • Le Trong Cu, An Dan Dai Dao Buddhist, birthday October 20, sentenced to 12 years in prison

  • Facebooker Nguyen Van Nghiem, birthday October 25, sentenced to six years in prison

  • Blogger Phan Kim Khanh, tried on October 25, 2017, and sentenced to six years in prison
Activists at Risk
Activist singer Nguyen Tin and his family are being forcibly evicted from their home after local police pressured their landlord to end their lease for alleged “security reasons.” The family has also been prevented from leaving home in recent days by a group of plainclothes police stationed outside their residence. Tin and his wife have a toddler; Tin has been subjected to police harassment in recent years, including a violent attack on his concert in 2018.
International Advocacy

Lawyer and political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen has been awarded the Stefanus Prize 2020. According to the organization, “The Stefanus Prize was established by the Norwegian missions- and human rights organization Stefanus Alliance International. It is awarded to a person or persons who has made a great contribution to the human right of freedom of religion and belief.” Truyen is serving an 11-year sentence for allegedly “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the government.” He is currently being kept in solitary confinement.

Human Rights Watch called for Japan to speak out about human rights violations in Vietnam during Prime Minister Suga’s trip there this week. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, said: “Japan should use its significant leverage as a major donor to the Vietnamese and Indonesian governments to press both to stop violating human rights.” Read news reports and analysis of the trip in the section below.


Background Brief: Japan’s Prime Minister Suga to Visit Vietnam, Carlyle A. Thayer, October 15, 2020: “Q4. What does PM Suga’s visit to Vietnam mean for Japan’s approach to Quad? ANSWER: PM Suga will promote both bilateral and multilateral relations with Vietnam under the loose framework of the Quad. Suga seeks greater flexibility to demonstrate independent Japanese leadership to influence regional developments other than reliance on military arrangements under U.S. leadership in the Quad.”

Japan, Vietnam reach broad agreement on transfer of defence gear, Channel News Asia (Reuters), October 19, 2020: “Japan and Vietnam agreed on Monday (Oct 19) to strengthen security and economic ties, including an agreement in principle for Japan to export military gear and technology to the Southeast Asian nation, amid concerns about China’s regional assertiveness.”

Facebook touts free speech. In Vietnam, it’s aiding in censorship, David S. Cloud and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2020: “Facebook has also barred Hanoi’s critics — including a Southern California-based opposition group — from buying ads to boost readership and has failed to stop pro-government trolls from swamping the platform to get dissidents’ posts removed. Instead of using its leverage as Vietnam’s biggest media platform to hold the line against censorship, Facebook has, in effect, become an accomplice in the government’s intensifying repression of pro-democracy voices, critics say. ‘I think for Zuckerberg the calculus with Vietnam is clear: It’s to maintain service in a country that has a huge population and in which Facebook dominates the consumer internet market, or else a competitor may step in,’ said Dipayan Ghosh, a former public policy advisor at Facebook who co-directs the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School.”


Dong Tam defendants at trial, Source: Reuters
In case you missed it, check out our analysis piece of the failure of Vietnam to comply with its obligations under international human rights law, as demonstrated by the recent arrests, detentions, and trial of the defendants in the Dong Tam land dispute case. The article highlights how the government has used extrajudicial forces, as well as the judicial machinery, to suppress not only the freedom of information of its citizens, but also many other basic political and civil rights, including the right to a fair trial, the right not to be subjected to torture, the right to liberty and security of the person, and the right to freedom from inhumane treatment.


Take action in support of Pham Doan Trang’s vision for a freer and fairer Vietnam by sharing this interview, which was filmed shortly before her arrest. In it, Trang reiterates what she wants for Vietnam and asks the international community to not treat her case with any higher priority than other political prisoners in the country.
© 2020 The 88 Project