Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 8/2021 – Week of February 22-28

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of February 22-28. Six defendants from the Dong Tam Commune incident will appeal their sentences — including two death sentences and a life sentence– in early March. Land rights activist Nguyen Thi Tam, who was arrested in June 2020, will be held for another four months for pre-trial investigation. Imprisoned journalist Pham Chi Dung’s mother wrote a letter addressing her support for Dung’s work. Amnesty International released a report confirming that the hacking group Ocean Lotus has targeted dissidents globally. Read an op-ed by about the state of the pro-democracy movement in Vietnam today. And in the news and analysis section, read updates on Vietnamese labor laws and geopolitical developments in the region. Take action for imprisoned religious leader Phan Van Thu, founder of the An Dan Dai Dao Buddhist sect, who is serving life in prison for his peaceful activism.


Political Prisoners

The Dong Tam defendants at trial, September 8, 2020. Source: State media via RFA.

The appeals trial for six defendants in the Dong Tam Commune incident has been set for March 8-10, 2021. Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc, sons of the village elder Le Dinh Kinh, who was killed by police, have appealed their death sentences, while Le Dinh Doanh appealed his life sentence. Bui Viet Hieu and Nguyen Quoc Tien appealed their 16-year and 13-year sentences, respectively. The only woman on trial, Bui Thi Noi, appealed her six-year sentence. Some of the lawyers have been notified about the trial and were able to visit their clients, while others were not. It is not clear why some lawyers were not permitted to meet their clients. Read our analysis of the first instance trial, here.

Land petitioner Nguyen Thi Tam’s pre-trial detention has been extended for another four months. She was arrested in June 2020. This means that Tam will continue to be kept incommunicado and will not be allowed to see her lawyer or her family for four more months. A long-time land rights activist, Tam is charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code for helping Dong Tam Commune villagers seek justice. In 2008, she was involved in another land grab case in Duong Noi. In 2014, Tam was sentenced to 18 months for protesting another land seizure.

Imprisoned journalist Pham Chi Dung’s mother wrote about her son in a New Year’s letter to the public. The letter was posted on the website of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, of which Dung was a co-founder with Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and for which he and Thuy were arrested. In the heartfelt letter, Mrs. Xuan Minh reiterated her support for her son’s actions, stating that he’d done nothing illegal or wrong. She said she is not ashamed that he’s in prison; on the contrary, she’s very proud of him. She also reminded those in power of what President Barrack Obama said when he visited Vietnam in 2016, that because in a democratic system the president and his administrations are constantly criticized, the country as a whole benefits by becoming better and stronger.

This week, we remember the arrest anniversaries, as well as the birthdays, of the following political prisoners–

Dang Ngoc Tan and Pham Thanh at trial on May 21, 2019. Source: Nhan Dan

  • June 2018 public protester Dang Ngoc Tan, birthday February 28, 2000, sentenced to 24 years in prison in three separate trials

Huynh Dac Tuy at trial on August 21, 2019, Source: state media
  • Online commentator Huynh Dac Tuy, arrested February 24, 2019, and sentenced to six years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state”
  • Online commentator Nguyen Van Cong Em, arrested February 28, 2019, and sentenced to five years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state”
International Advocacy and International Relations 

An investigation by Amnesty International has confirmed that hacking group Ocean Lotus is responsible for a sophisticated hacking operation against Vietnamese dissidents abroad. The group, also known as APT32, is suspected of having links to the government of Vietnam. Two prominent dissidents, one in Germany and the other in the Philippines, were targeted. Amnesty is calling on the government of Vietnam to carry out an independent investigation lest it be viewed as an accomplice.

Nguyen Bac Truyen 

On February 25, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom had a hearing to introduce two programs designed to shine some light on human rights abuses for religious reasons. The hearing began with the case of Nguyen Bac Truyen, who is on a list of more than 1,000 cases. Of these, Vietnam has about 35 cases. Truyen is a democracy and religious rights activist who was arrested in 2017 and later sentenced to 11 years in prison. The second program involves sponsoring a political prisoner. Each member agrees to sponsor one or more political prisoners; Truyen is sponsored by Chairwoman Aniruma Bhargava, vice chair of USCIRF.

State-run newspapers Thanh Nien and Dan Tri inadvertently posted a news article in which a Foreign Ministry spokesperson did not answer the direct question as to whether or not the government kidnapped Trinh Xuan Thanh in Berlin. By saying only that Thanh had been tried and sentenced but not explaining how he was arrested and brought back to Hanoi, the Ministry tacitly acknowledged that he was illegally abducted. The articles were quickly removed from the websites; however, some people were able to capture screenshots of it.

Meanwhile, RFA reported that a state-run Slovakia TV program confirmed that the mission to kidnap Trinh Xuan Thanh in Berlin, codenamed “VT17,” was carried out by a team of 12 people. The men were recognized and given commendations by the Ministry of Security in a public ceremony in Hanoi in 2020. Germany’s Taz also ran an article on “VT17” on February 24 that confirmed the story.


An op-ed by Viet Hoang, posted on the website of the Brotherhood for Democracy, argues that despite efforts by brave individual dissidents, there has yet to be a real democracy movement in Vietnam. The author believes this is because the methods employed are old-school, uncoordinated, and therefore, ineffective. What is needed, he argues, is a long-term campaign to change the thinking and the culture of Vietnamese society itself. And it should include people who are Party members, for it is they who most likely can push the country towards a more democratic form of government. There are currently 11 members of the Brotherhood for Democracy in pre-trial detention or sentenced to prison terms in Vietnam.

Who will be first vaccinated against COVID-19?,, February 23, 2021: “Viet Nam is expected to receive 60 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in 2021, half of which has been committed by the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) program, Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long said on February 19. The remaining 30 million doses have been agreed upon by the Health Ministry and the UK-based AstraZeneca company.”

Vietnam strengthens fortifications in disputed South China Sea, satellite images reveal, Mike Yeo,, February 25, 2021: “Vietnam has continued to beef up its outposts in the disputed South China Sea with improved fortifications and infrastructure, although the scale of its activities is modest compared to that carried out by China, according to a new report. Emplacements for anti-aircraft and coastal defense systems have been built on reclaimed land at West Reef and Sin Cowe Island, according to the report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, or AMTI…”

China Said to be Installing Missile Base Near Border with Vietnam, Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, February 26, 2021: “China is apparently building a surface-to-air missile base 20 kilometers from its border with Vietnam, as a long-term precaution and near-term warning to neighboring countries, observers say. A spokesperson for Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said via the VnExpress International news website Feb. 4 that her government would ‘verify’ whether China had completed a missile base in the Guangxi region near the Vietnamese border.”

Vietnam’s labor rights make two steps forward, one step back, David Hutt,, February 22, 2021: “‘MEPs weren’t naïve; they knew who they were dealing with, that it was a one-party state […] In the months before, and at the time of the ratification, it was a judgement call by MEPs whether the commitments made by the Vietnamese government, which were more substantive than the EU had had from other partner governments, were enough. […] There were some MEPs who would have voted for the EVFTA without any commitments at all.’ However, Kirton-Darling stresses the Vietnamese government’s roadmap laid out to the European politicians was substantial and that many saw it as the start of a process, not the end.

Why Communist Anti-Corruption Campaigns Never Work, David Hutt, The Diplomat, February 23, 2021: “In Vietnam, the anti-graft campaign has gone hand in hand with a ‘morality; campaign that has purged reformist-minded cadre, cut down membership rolls, made ideological fealty the prerequisite for promotion and produced endless documents stressing that a new ‘strategic cadre’ will be formed from those who show devotion to socialist principles, loyalty to the current gang of leaders, and ethical living.”


Please share this call with your network and representatives to raise awareness for Phan Van Thu, leader of the Buddhist group An Dan Dai Dao, who is serving a life sentence in prison for his religious and social work. Thu is suffering from multiple health conditions and desperately needs medical attention.
© 2021 The 88 Project