Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 48/2021 – Week of December 13-19

Greetings from The 88 Project. We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of December 13-19. There will be no newsletter on December 26 or January 2. We will return with a newsletter on January 9. 

It was a disheartening week with three consecutive first-instance trials of four high-profile activists that ended with a total of 35 years of prison time. All the trials were short (four hours or less), all the charges were the same (conducting “anti-State propaganda”), all the evidence was flimsy (no witnesses called), and all the state examiners were absent (Covid-positive, supposedly). As expected, international organizations denounced the sham trials and called for the immediate release of the activists who they say were simply exercising their free speech. The United States, the EU and other governments also expressed their concerns about the trials and sentencing. But without any real threat of economic sanctions and/or enforcement of trade agreement obligations, Vietnam is unlikely to change its ways. Indeed, some observers point out that Vietnam’s rising geopolitical importance in the region has only emboldened the country as it lobbies for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. With three more trials coming up before year’s end, we’ll soon see how well that works. Don’t miss the background story of Do Nam Trung, one of the four tried this week.


Political Prisoners

On December 14, author Pham Doan Trang was handed a 9-year sentence by a Hanoi court, one year more than recommended by the prosecutor, for conducting “anti-State propaganda,” in a trial that lasted only four hours. Even though Trang did not know about her own trial until the day before, she was able to deliver powerful closing remarks that were frequently interrupted by the judge. After much pressure from the lawyers, Trang’s mother and brother were allowed into the courtroom. It was the first time any family member has seen Trang since her arrest in October 2020. Representatives from several embassies, including the United States, were allowed inside the courtroom while some others were not. There were no witnesses in the trial. The examiners who investigated the case were absent — the judge said they were excused for being Covid positive, but refused to show proof when asked by defense lawyers. Trang is expected to appeal the verdict.

Trinh Ba Phuong at trial on December 15, Source: AFP via RFA

On December 15, land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong was sentenced to 10 years in prison plus five years probation, and his co-defendant Nguyen Thi Tam was sentenced to six years in prison with three years probation, both for conducting “anti-State propaganda.” At trial, Phuong told the court that he was beaten more than 20 times during interrogation, even kicked in the groin. His testimony was repeatedly cut off by the judge. Phuong’s wife, Thu Do, was outside the courthouse with her two young children when she was taken away “for Covid testing,” leaving her children behind (one is only 15 months old). Tam’s family had to evade secret police who were guarding their home the night before in order to make it to the courthouse. But once there they were rounded up by police, taken to the precinct station and kept there until after the trial had ended. No witnesses appeared at the trials. The examiners who investigated the case were absent. Both defendants are expected to appeal.

On December 16, long-time activist and former political prisoner Do Nam Trung was given a 10 year prison sentence for “anti-State propaganda,” bringing the total number of Article 117 victims to four in just three days — a new record. Out of the four, Trung’s background story is the least well known but quite intriguing nonetheless. We invite you to read about it here.

On December 17, an appeals court in Ho Chi Minh City upheld the 10-year sentence against Vu Tien Chi from Lam Dong Province. Chi was arrested in June 2020 and convicted of “anti-State propaganda” in March 2021.

Political prisoner Huynh Duc Thanh Binh, in a call with his mother, reported that his fellow inmate Huynh Huu Dat, 52, had died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare. Dat reportedly suffered from cancer and an unknown liver condition. Arrested in 2017, Dat was serving a 13-year sentence for “activities aimed at overthrowing the State” under Article 79 of the 1999 Criminal Code.

Theu and Tu at their first instance trial in May 2021, Source: State Media via RFA

The appeals trial of mother and son land rights activists Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu (Tu is the brother of Trinh Ba Phuong mentioned above) will take place on December 24. Both were sentenced in May of this year to eight years in prison for disseminating information about the police assault on Dong Tam Village in January 2020.

The first-instance trial of Le Trong Hung, who tried to run as an independent candidate for a seat in the National Assembly, will be held on December 31 to close out the book on 2021.

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

Le Thi Binh and Huynh Truong Ca

  • Facebooker Le Thi Binh, arrested on December 22, 2020, and sentenced to two years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms”
  • Hoa Hao Buddhist Tran Thanh Giang, birthday December 27, currently serving eight years in prison for conducting “propaganda against the state”
  • Civil society activist Huynh Truong Ca, tried on December 28, 2018, and sentenced to five years in prison for conducting “propaganda against the state”
  • Teaching professional Pham Dinh Quy, birthday January 1, arrested in September 2020 and currently in pre-trial detention for alleged defamation of a public official

Thuy, Tuan, and Dung at trial in January 2021, Source: Vietnam News Agency via Reuters

  • Independent journalists Nguyen Tuong Thuy, Pham Chi Dung, and Le Huu Minh Tuan, tried together on January 5, 2021, and sentenced to 11, 15, and 11 years in prison, respectively
  • Online commentator Nguyen Van Nhanh, arrested January 7, 2021, and sentenced to one year in prison for “offending” an official whom he accused of mismanaging a local land dispute
  • Online commentator Dinh Van Phu, arrested January 9, 2020, and currently in pre-trial detention on charges of spreading “propaganda against the state”

International Advocacy

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement condemning the harsh sentences handed out this week and noted that “All the cases follow similar worrying patterns that raise serious issues concerning the presumption of innocence, the legality of their detention, and the fairness of their trial.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on Peaceful Assembly and Freedom of Expression has sent a detailed report to the government of Vietnam that spells out precisely which decrees, articles and provisions of its laws are in serious violation of UN conventions and covenants to which Vietnam is a signatory. This is a highly important and useful document for human rights organizations working on Vietnam.

Article 19 reminds readers that the UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary Detention has called out Vietnam specifically for its violations regarding Pham Doan Trang’s arrest and pre-trial detention.

In a highly critical public denouncement, Reporters Sans Frontiere urged governments worldwide to place “targeted sanctions on Vietnamese officials” involved in the prosecution of Pham Doan Trang and other human rights defenders. Human Rights Watch has also called for the immediate release of Do Nam Trung and the other defendants.

The EU has also urged the release of Doan Trang and the other defendants this week, pointing out that their imprisonment violates “Vietnam’s international human rights obligations, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party since 1982.”

The U.S. State Department also “condemns” the harsh verdicts against activists and urges Vietnam to amend its laws to be more consistent with its own Constitution.


Vietnam jails its ‘most famous activist’ for nine years, Chris Humphrey, Washington Post, December 15, 2021: “Vietnam’s state media has said Trang was radicalized by hostile reactionaries after traveling overseas. Voice of Vietnam, the national radio broadcaster, said her writing had seriously harmed security and order while also angering the state and the Vietnamese people. Zachary Abuza, a professor of Southeast Asia studies at the National War College in Washington, said Trang had become a headache for Vietnam’s rulers because she exposed how the government violated its own laws. ‘They spent years harassing, intimidating and threatening her. She never backed down, ever, even when she knew they were coming for her. This is a woman of inordinate courage.’”

Vietnam’s Annus Horribilis for Human Rights, Stewart Rees, The Diplomat, December 15, 2021: “Today’s news serves as a reminder that the Vietnamese government feels as though it has the freedom to act with impunity from the international community. That Vietnam is next year likely to be elected as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council adds insult to injury after what has been a dispiriting year in the country. Sometimes it seems as though Vietnam’s behavior is deliberately intended to make a mockery of human rights. Trang’s arrest on October 6 last year came just hours after the conclusion of the 24th annual human rights dialogue conference held with the U.S. government.”

Facebook remains a centre of authoritarianism and hate in Southeast Asia, Jack Brook, Govi Snell, Southeast Asia Globe, December 23, 2021: “In Southeast Asia, Facebook has been criticised for allowing hate speech and disinformation on its platform while compromising with dictatorial regimes. Governments including those in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have leveraged the platform to silence dissent and spread propaganda. Facebook – recently renamed Meta, although the website’s title is unchanged – has come under increased global scrutiny since whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a trove of internal reports styled by the media as ‘The Facebook Papers.’”

Why the West Has Gone Soft on Human Rights in Vietnam, David Hutt, The Diplomat, December 15, 2021: “Does it matter if the Vietnamese government has a terrible human rights record now if (also right now) it can be a bulwark against Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific? For Vietnamese activists, that’s a problem. Almost all pro-democracy voices in Vietnam are, first, pro-U.S. and, second, fervently nationalistic in wanting their government to challenge China on every perceivable issue. The two positions aren’t just corollary but indistinguishable. However, the more Vietnam makes itself integral to America’s strategic aims, the more Washington is likely to ignore political repression in Vietnam. If Vietnam wasn’t such an important part of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s hard to imagine Washington not being far more critical of its government’s repression.”

The Shameless Spectacle Of Vietnam’s Attempt To Rejoin The UN Human Rights Council, Aerolyn Reed, The Vietnamese, December 17, 2021: “In Vietnam’s current attempt to grab a second term in the UNHCR, more severe and plentiful accusations bar its path and the world has grown much more aware of the many transgressions the VCP routinely commits against Vietnamese citizens. Groups, such as CIVICUS and the 88 Project, actively keep track of human rights developments in Vietnam and regularly release detailed and comprehensive reports for the public while media outlets, such as ourselves and our counterparts at the Luật Khoa, remain dedicated to updating Vietnamese about the issues plaguing their homeland, wherever they may live.”


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Le Trong Hung

Share this video interview with Le Trong Hung’s wife, Do Le Na, which can be used to raise awareness of his case ahead of his trial on December 31.

We also have a video interview with Can Thi Theu. She and her two sons are currently imprisoned for their land rights activism. Theu and son Trinh Ba Tu will have an appeal trial on December 24.

© 2021 The 88 Project