Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 47/2020 – Weeks of November 23-29 and November 30-December 6

Greetings from The 88 Project!  We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the weeks of November 23-29 and November 30-December 6. Four political prisoners are on a hunger strike– Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is in critical condition. The first instance trial for Brotherhood for Democracy member Tran Duc Thach was postponed, and four members of the Hien Phap group have been transferred to a new prison. Hoang Duc Binh’s family has been denied a visit with him and Facebooker Dinh Thi Thu Thuy was finally allowed to meet with her lawyers after eight months in detention. Read recent reports from international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International’s report on Facebook and Google’s compliance with Vietnam’s requests for censorship, as well as Safeguard Defender’s report on using Magnitsky Act sanctions against human rights violators. In the news and analysis section, read about Facebook’s relationship with the Vietnamese government and US-Vietnam relations under the Biden administration. And take action for Tran Huynh Duy Thuc by sharing a visual and text message on social media, as well as for Nguyen Van Hoa.


Political Prisoners

Nguyen Bac Truyen, Pham Van Diep, and Nguyen Van Hoa 
Three political prisoners have been on a hunger strike at An Diem Prison since at least November 20. They are Nguyen Bac TruyenPham Van Diep, and Nguyen Van Hoa. On November 26, Hoa’s sister visited him and reported that her brother looked pale and weak and had been on a hunger strike for seven days. They are protesting violations of their human rights, such as not being allowed to send or receive letters, not being given adequate healthcare, and being transferred to prisons far from their hometowns, causing hardship for their families. All their requests have been ignored by the authorities, even Truyen’s 2019 petition for a medical examination.

Political prisoner Tran Huynh Duy Thuc has also been on a hunger strike since November 23. His family was able to visit him on November 30 and reported that he was extremely weak. He asked his family to make public this message: “I’m sorry that I could not reach the end successfully with you all, but please keep moving forward on the path of enlightening our compatriots and the world, keep up the battles for Human Rights. Make the most use of my departure by pushing this struggle to its end by this year or the next.”

The first-instance trial for democracy activist Tran Duc Thach, scheduled for November 30, was canceled without warning. His family arrived at the courthouse on the day of the trial and were told he was unfit to stand trial. His wife was allowed to see her husband the next day, and he told her he had been hospitalized for a week for high blood pressure. Thach, a member of the Brotherhood for Democracy, is being charged with subversion under Article 109 of the Criminal Code.

Four members of the Hien Phap (Constitution) group were transferred to An Phuoc Prison in Binh Duong on November 23. They are: Do The HoaTran Thanh PhuongHoang Thi Thu Vang, and Doan Thi Hong. Phuong was able to call his wife on that day, and he reported that he is suffering from high blood pressure.

On November 23, Hoang Duc Binh’s family was denied a visit with him again at An Diem Prison, allegedly due to Binh’s refusal to wear a prison uniform, as he insists that he is not a criminal. The same thing happened last month. Binh is an environmental and labor rights activist serving 14 years in prison.

After being detained in Hau Giang Province for nearly eight months for her Facebook postings, Dinh Thi Thu Thuy finally was finally allowed to see her lawyers for the first time. Attorneys Nguyen Van Mieng and Trinh Vinh Phuc said her mental health is poor due to being held incommunicado. Her trial date has not been set. She was arrested on April 18, 2020 and she is being charged under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code for “propaganda against the state.”

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

Tran Thanh Giang
  • Hoa Hao Buddhist Tran Thanh Giang, tried on November 27, 2019, and sentenced to eight years in prison

Huynh Minh Tam and Huynh Thi To Nga at trial on November 28, 2019. Source: Dong Nai Newspaper
  • Sibling Facebookers Huynh Thi To Nga and Huynh Minh Tam, tried on November 28, 2019, sentenced to five and nine years respectively in prison
  • Blogger Huynh Thuc Vy, tried on November 30, 2018, and sentenced to two years and nine months in prison; she will begin to serve her sentence once her youngest child turns three years old

Le Quy Loc
  • Hien Phap activist Le Quy Loc, birthday December 2, serving five years in prison
  • Activist Nguyen Dinh Khue, birthday December 3, sentenced to two years and four months in prison

Vu Quang Thuan
Activists at Risk

Tran Huu Duc, a Catholic activist who applied for political asylum, arrived in the United States on November 13. He was imprisoned for three years (2011-2014) for “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the 1999 Criminal Code. Since his release, Duc had been constantly harassed by local authorities and non-uniformed plainclothes police.

International Advocacy

Pham Doan Trang’s books. Trang has been subjected to heavy censorship and was arrested in October 2020. Source: Pham Doan Trang Facebook

Read CIVICUS Monitor’s most recent update on the state of civil society in Vietnam, where the crackdown against the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam and the Liberal Publishing House (LPH) continues. Regarding LPH, CIVICUS states: “As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, more than 100 individuals who have been targeted are believed to have either bought or read books printed by the publisher, or to have worked for the publishing house.”

Vietnam abstained from voting on a UN resolution opposing the death penalty. Eleven Asian Pacific countries voted against the resolution. Vietnam uses the death penalty in a variety of criminal cases, including drug trafficking and the political charge of subversion.

Read Safeguard Defender’s report on fighting impunity with Magnitsky Act sanctions. The Vietnamese version of the report was co-authored by jailed writer Pham Doan Trang and is dedicated to her. Safeguard Defenders writes that: “This comprehensive manual, localized for Vietnam, is aimed at civil society, and is the only resource of its kind, providing step-by-step instructions on how to file recommendations for sanctions on Vietnamese perpetrators of gross human rights violations.”

German member of Parliament Martin Patzelt has agreed to sponsor Bui Van Tham, a Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioner currently serving a six year sentence for “disturbing public peace” and “obstruction.” Tham, who began serving his sentence in 2018, has allegedly been tortured and mistreated in prison. Mr. Patzelt has reminded the government of Vietnam of the need to respect its own laws and regulations.

Amnesty International has issued a scathing 78-page report describing how tech giants such as Facebook and Youtube have “become tools of the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship and harassment of its population.” Read about it here.

Police Brutality 

A citizen named Vu Dinh Hung was beaten by a police officer, according to his sister. It is not clear what caused the violence, but a police investigation confirmed that he had 12 percent injury to his body, including burned fingernails and bruised genitals. Vietnamese authorities have often been accused of police brutality, and some citizens have met mysterious deaths while in police custody. In addition to regular citizens, political prisoners and activists are also often beaten while in custody, by plainclothes police, or by groups of pro-government attackers.


Could Vietnam Really Shut Down Facebook?, The Diplomat, Sebastian Strangio, November 23, 2020: “This makes it clear that Facebook’s aversion to censorship is relative rather than absolute. As the above-cited LA Times investigation showed, the company has been willing to block content that the Vietnamese authorities deem unlawful. Citing internal sources, the Reuters report stated that Facebook earns annual revenue of nearly $1 billion from its operations in Vietnam. This suggests firm limits to how far the company would be willing to go to take a stand for freedom of expression. Of course, things are just as thorny on the other end of the equation. The Vietnamese government would undoubtedly face huge difficulties in banning Facebook outright.”

Facebook’s self-defeating censorship in Vietnam, Nate Fisher, Asia Times, November 24, 2020: “If programming portrays a version of Vietnamese history or offers a take on society that is at odds with the government’s line, it is liable to be banned. This principle goes doubly so for Facebook as it is has become the de facto top platform for dissent in Vietnam, hence the government’s intense and perpetual scrutiny. One glaring example of the censorship was last month’s widely reported Dong Tam story, where Facebook banned the dissemination of news related to a land dispute in the small northern town of Dong Tam….”

Why Vietnam fears Biden as much as Trump, David Hutt, Asia Times, November 26, 2020: “Whether that will fundamentally change under the Biden administration waits to be seen. The prevailing view among Vietnam watchers is that the next US president will go easier on Vietnam over issues like currency manipulation and trade surpluses. The Biden administration is likely to ‘adopt less aggressive policies on trade, and that means they may moderate on trade with Vietnam and may pause or cancel the currency manipulation investigation,’ Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told regional media this month.”

‘Trump Is Better’: In Asia, Pro-Democracy Forces Worry About Biden, Hannah Beech, November 30, 2020: “‘Human rights activists and religious leaders in Vietnam and Myanmar are expressing reservations about President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s ability to keep authoritarians in check. It might seem counterintuitive that Asian defenders of democracy are among the most ardent supporters of Mr. Trump, who has declared his friendship with Xi Jinping of China and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. But it is precisely Mr. Trump’s willingness to flout diplomatic protocol, abandon international accords and keep his opponents off-balance that have earned him plaudits as a leader strong enough to stand up to dictators and defend democratic ideals overseas, even if he has been criticized as diminishing them at home.”


Take action for Tran Huynh Duy Thuc by asking international organizations and foreign governments to immediately press the Vietnamese government for an update on Thuc’s health and for the Vietnamese High Court to review his request to have his sentence reduced based on changes in the 2015 Criminal Code. See visuals you can share, and an example text you can use on social media, here. You can also take action in support of Thuc with Frontline Defenders.

Take action for Nguyen Van Hoa by sending a message to US Congressman Alan Lowenthal, who has adopted Hoa under the Defending Freedoms Project of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Read a sample message, and learn more about Hoa here.


Note: In the newsletter No. 46/2020 email version, we reported on Hanoi’s ex-Chairman Nguyen Duc Chung’s prosecution. We should have clarified that Mr. Chung is being prosecuted for an economic crime that is unrelated to the first Dong Tam crisis.

© 2020 The 88 Project