Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 43/2020 – Week of October 26-November 1

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 26-November 1. After being released from prison unexpectedly last week, US citizen Michael Nguyen held a press conference to speak about his treatment while in jail in Vietnam. Nguyen’s release came just days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Vietnam. Imprisoned blogger Nguyen Van Hoa’s family called on Pompeo to push for Hoa’s release from prison as well. Human Rights Watch has condemned Japan for financially aiding Vietnam’s police. In the news and analysis section, read a piece contrasting Michael Nguyen’s release with the arrest of famous dissident writer Pham Doan Trang, as well as reflections on what the upcoming US election could mean for US-Vietnam relations. In case you missed it, watch a short but succinct interview with Pham Doan Trang that was filmed prior to her arrest. And take action this week by signing Amnesty International’s petition to free jailed Australian citizen Chau Van Kham, who is in poor health.


Political Prisoners

In a surprise move by Vietnam, US citizen Michael Nguyen was released from prison and returned to the United States last week. He 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. Vietnam’s Foregin Ministry said on Thursday that his release last week was for humanitarian reasons. His co-defendants, Huynh Duc Thanh Binh and Tran Long Phi, remain imprisoned.

In a press conference, Michael Nguyen spoke about the conditions he faced in a Vietnamese prison, including having no privacy in his personal correspondence and never being fully told the reasons for the charges against him. He also claims he was kidnapped by unidentified men, only later identified as police officers, during his arrest. Nguyen was denied a lawyer until a day before his trial. “They had written out a statement for me to sign and the public defender’s main job was to get me to sign a statement of words that were not even my own,” he said. Read more about his experience here.

Representative Harley Rouda (D-CA) said his office had been working closely with representative Katie Porter (D-CA) and the State Department to secure the release of Michael Nguyen ahead of the visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Hanoi this week. It is not known whether Pompeo talked to General To Lam, head of the Ministry of Public Security, about the case of journalist Pham Doan Trang, who was arrested hours after the two countries concluded their annual Dialogue on Human Rights on October 6.

Imprisoned blogger Nguyen Van Hoa’s family also urged US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press for Hoa’s release during Pompeo’s visit to Vietnam this week. In October, the family was denied a visit with Hoa because he refused to wear a prison uniform. Hoa’s request for medical attention for a possible ear infection, as well a request for a transfer to a prison closer to his family, were also denied. “Our family wants the European Union and the United States to speak out about my brother’s case,” Nguyen’s sister, Nguyen Thi Hue, told Radio Free Asia.

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

  • Montagnard Chrisitan leader Y Yem Hwing, arrested October 29, 2012, and expected to be released from prison on October 29, 2020
  • Montagnard Protestant missionary Ksor Ruk, arrested October 30, 2018, and sentenced to 10 years in prison
  • University lecturer and Facebooker Pham Xuan Hao, arrested October 31, 2019, and expected to be released from prison on October 31, 2020
  • Facebooker Nguyen Van Phuoc, tried on October 29, 2019, and sentenced to five years in prison

Defendants ion October 31, 2018, Source Vn Express
  • The 30 June 2018 protesters tried in a massive trial in Binh Thuan Province on October 31, 2018, and sentenced to between two and 3.5 years in prison each
International Relations

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo elbow bumps Minister of Public Security To Lam (left) in Hanoi last Friday. Photo:

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Japan to stop aiding Vietnam’s police after the Japanese Foreign Ministry announced that it would give Vietnam’s Public Security Ministry a grant of nearly US$3 million to buy “counterterrorism” equipment, which the ministry said would help “stabilize society.” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia Division, argues that Vietnam security police should not receive any funding from Japan because it is “a notorious violator of human rights with a long track record of torturing criminal suspects and human rights defenders.”


Vietnam Justice Works in Strange Ways, David Brown, Asia Sentinel, October 27, 2020: “After he’d spent two years in a Vietnamese prison, though in no way representative of Vietnam’s community of political dissidents, [Michael] Nguyen became a pawn in the Hanoi regime’s annual dialogue with the US on civil liberties. Just two weeks earlier, US and Vietnamese officials had met for their annual bilateral discussion of human rights (this year it was held virtually). Securing Nguyen’s release was surely one of the principal objectives of the US side. And ironically, at almost the same time that the two sides were wrapping up, Pham Doan Trang was arrested on a charge of ‘making anti-state propaganda.’ And, unlike Michael Nguyen, when home-grown Vietnamese dissidents are arrested, they are denied visitors or packages from home unless they confess their guilty intent.”

Why Vietnam wouldn’t mind if Trump loses to Biden, David Hutt, Asia Times, October 29, 2020: “Another question is whether a Biden administration would seek to press Hanoi harder on its woeful human rights record, which has worsened during Trump’s time in office. Within the first months of Trump taking office in 2017, it was clear that his administration would de-emphasize human rights promotion and democracy-building in Southeast Asia. However, even if a Biden administration were to make human rights more of a priority for US foreign policy, most analysts expect Vietnam to escape the worst of Washington’s wrath. Under Obama and George W. Bush, as well as Trump, US administrations have overlooked Hanoi’s domestic abuses, raising the issue in front of the cameras but tacitly accepting the Vietnamese Communist Party’s severe repression.”

What Will Vietnam Look for From the Next U.S. Administration?, Hanh Nguyen, The Diplomat, October 30, 2020: “In light of China’s growing power and assertiveness, the U.S. continues to be one of the most critical partners of Vietnam, and Hanoi hopes to maintain the upward trajectory of bilateral relations. But Vietnam hopes that the next U.S. administration offers a more nuanced form of engagement balanced toward stronger cooperation in non-military fields. Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is often viewed with skepticism in the region due to its security-focused agenda and its characterization of Beijing as an unalloyed threat to the region. In this respect, the Vietnamese government is no exception.”

Hong Kong’s Next-door Ally, Asia Democracy Chronicles, via The Vietnamese, October 28, 2020: “Many Vietnamese citizens hold Hong Kong freedom fighters Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow Ting in high regard. The Vietnamese cheer when a government expresses support for the former British colony’s fight for freedom. And they mourn whenever there is a crackdown—or a pro-democracy activist gets arrested or dies.”


In this short but succinct interview that was filmed prior to her arrestPham 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.


Amnesty International is petitioning for the release of Australian citizen Chau Van Kham, who was arrested upon entering Vietnam in January, 2019, and who is serving a 12-year sentence for allegedly “attempting to overthrow the government.” Kham’s family says he’s in poor health, and they fear for his well-being. You can sign the petition here.
© 2020 The 88 Project