Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 9/2021 – Week of March 1-7

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of March 1-7. Six defendants in the Dong Tam Commune case face their appeals trial this week; two are appealing death sentences and one life in prison. The six were tried as part of a group of dozens of defendants arrested in the aftermath of the January 2020 police raid in Dong Tam Commune, outside of Hanoi, which left a local land rights leader dead. The One Free Press Coalition has released its list of ten female journalists at risk in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8). Read our analysis of the additional obstacles female political prisoners face in Vietnam, here.  EU investigators continue to seek answers in the abduction of Trinh Xuan Thanh in Berlin in July 2017. And in the news and analysis section, read about Vietnam’s foreign policy. Take action this week for political prisoner Dinh Thi Thu Thuy by sharing a letter with your local representatives or by using social media to support her release.


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

Lawyers working on the Dong Tam case have written a 31-page letter to the Court ahead of the appeals trial scheduled to start on March 8, 2021. In it, they detail the inconsistencies in the prosecutors’ case and request that the Court rectify many of the errors, omissions, and illegal maneuvers that were present in the first instance trial. They ask that family members of the accused, as well as independent members of the press, are allowed to attend. The two men accused of murder and facing the death penalty are Le Dinh Cong, 57, and Le Dinh Chuc, 41. Le Dinh Doanh, 33, is facing life imprisonment. Bui Viet Hieu, 78, was sentenced to 16 years, and Nguyen Quoc Tien, 41, was sentenced to 13 years. Bui Thi Noi, 63, is facing six years for “obstructing officials carrying out government duties.” Since this is an important murder trial that could have grave consequences, the lawyers also asked that new evidence be allowed to be presented and that a re-staging of the crime scene be created.

Counsel for Dong Tam defendant Bui Thi Noi was finally able to talk to her. Even though Noi was not charged with a serious crime, such as murder or or of beinng an accomplice to murder, as were the other five defendants who are appealing their sentences, she was kept in jail due to her outburst at the first-instance trial, which resulted in her being led out of court. At the meeting, she surprisingly revealed to her lawyer Tuan Ngo a hole in her shirt which she said was the result of her being shot in the shoulder during the police attack. This detail was never presented in court and could be a key piece of evidence, provided that her lawyer is allowed to present it during the appeals trial.

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

  • Montagnard Christian activist Siu Ben, arrested March 2009, sentenced to 12 years in prison for “undermining the unity policy,” and expected to be released from prison this month

  • Pro-democracy video bloggers Nguyen Van Dien (left) and Vu Quang Thuan, arrested March 2, 2017, and sentenced to six years and six months and eight years in prison respectively for conducting “propaganda against the state”

Defendants at trial on March 7, 2019, Source: Thanh Nien

  • 15 June 2018 protesters tried in Binh Thuan on March 7, 2019, and sentenced to prison terms for “disturbing public order”
International Advocacy & International Relations

Pham Doan Trang

One Free Press Coalition has published its Top Ten Most Urgent list of journalists at risk for March. In anticipation of International Women’s Day (March 8), this month’s list focuses on women reporters and writers. The list includes Pham Doan Trang, imprisoned Vietnamese journalist and writer. According to the article: “Six of the women on the list this month are behind bars, and 13% of all imprisoned journalists in 2020 were women. One of the journalists on the list this month was murdered in connection to her reporting, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented 70 female journalists murdered since 1992.”

EU investigators have sent out a photo of 12 men alleged to have been involved in the abduction of Trinh Xuan Thanh  in Berlin in July 2017 and asked the public to help identify them. They have also published a list of 12 names that were on the manifest of the flight that brought Thanh from Slovakia to Hanoi, noting that the names may or may not match the men pictured. Highest on the list are General To Lam, Minister of Public Security, and a member of the Politburo; Lt. Gen. Duong Minh Hung from the Ministry of Public Security; and Lt. Gen. Le Manh Cuong from the Intelligence Department. Thanh is currently serving a life sentence for alleged corruption. He was a legal resident in Germany waiting for a decision on his asylum application when kidnapped.


The Vietnamese women who refuse to stay silent, Grace Bui, Asia Times, March 7, 2021: “The Vietnamese government often uses children as bait to force their mothers to sign a confession. The authorities accuse the women of not fulfilling their responsibilities as mothers. These women are often transferred to prisons located far away from their home towns, even thousands of kilometers away. By detaining them in places that are far from home, they make it extremely difficult for the young children to visit. The family is only allowed to visit once a month and for less than 30 minutes each visit. Sometimes the families will travel a long distance to the prison camps only to find out that they are not allowed to visit.”

Hanoi spurns China’s vaccine diplomacy with homemade shot, Tomoya Onishi, Nikkei, February 28, 2021: “A Vietnamese pharmaceutical company has begun second phase trials on a coronavirus vaccine, an important step toward Hanoi’s goal of vaccine independence from China amid rising territorial tensions between the countries. If the trials are successful, Nanogen Pharmaceutical Biotechnology’s Nano Covax vaccine is expected to be approved for emergency use as early as May. A quick rollout is crucial for Vietnam, which seeks to keep Beijing from exerting influence through its so-called vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia.”

Vietnam to run for a seat at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, Trinh Huu Long, The Vietnamese, March 1, 2021: “That’s what the Deputy Prime Minister announced last week before a United Nations’ session in Geneva, Switzerland. Vietnam apparently doesn’t have a good record on human rights. But just like other authoritarian states such as China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, it has a chance to win one out of 47 seats on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s 2023-2025 term.”

Is Vietnam open to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy? Nguyen Huu Tuc, East Asia Forum, March 4, 2021: “In promoting FOIP, Washington will entice Vietnam into the ranks of its anti-China coalition, forcing Vietnam to risk taking sides. If not handled carefully, this might offend China, a neighbouring power with a long history of relations with Vietnam. Second, the deployment of US military assets and the increased presence of US military personnel might lead to a new regional arms race. China has already increased its military presence in the disputed waters in the South China Sea, most notably through the militarisation of artificial islands. Beijing recently passed the Coast Guard Law, authorising the use of armed force and the destruction of foreign structures in the South China Sea in waters ‘under China’s jurisdiction’.”

How The Vietnamese State Uses Cyber Troops to Shape Online Discourse, Dien Nguyen An Luong, ISEAS, February 22, 2021: “Some key observations: First, the red flag that would galvanize the cyber unit into action is anti-state content, one that is deemed detrimental to the reputation and legitimacy of the regime and its leaders; second, discourse, toleration and responsiveness have been the prioritized strategy of choice; and perhaps most intriguingly, while the authorities have repeatedly warned the mainstream press against the risk of trailing behind social media, they have often tacitly sanctioned the cyber unit to be ahead of the propaganda media in shaping the online narrative on certain sensitive issues.”

Where to now for Vietnam after Trong? Alexander Vuving, APCSS, East Asia Forum, February 27, 2021: “Trong’s re-election was part of a larger deal. The other top leadership positions of the country — the president, prime minister and National Assembly chair — are set to be filled by Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Pham Minh Chinh and Vuong Dinh Hue, respectively, who are pragmatists rather than doctrinaire. Below these ‘four pillars’, the fifth senior position in the party-state, that of the CPV executive secretary, was given to Vo Van Thuong, a middle-of-the-roader, neither a conservative nor a reformer. So while Trong may stay for a half or full term, his likely successor among these top leaders would be the first non-conservative to lead the VCP since 1989.”


All March, we will highlight actions you can take for Vietnamese female political prisoners. Please share this call with your network and representatives to raise awareness of and support for Dinh Thi Thu Thuy. She is an aquaculture engineer and environmental activist currently serving a seven-year sentence for “propaganda against the state.”

© 2021 The 88 Project