Pham Doan Trang Trial Postponed as International Observers Condemn Her Detention

Authorities in Vietnam have announced that the trial of Pham Doan Trang has been delayed after a member of the prosecution contracted COVID-19, just a day after the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) called for her immediate and unconditional release. In a statement released on October 25, the group accused the government of arbitrarily detaining the pro-democracy activist due to her work as an independent journalist and human rights defender.

The UNWGAD accused the Vietnamese government of a plethora of human rights violations, calling for an independent investigation into the circumstances of her arrest, and “appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of her rights.” The group also declared that law used to charge Trang is too vague and is thus “incompatible with the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Trang, a former-state journalist turned pro-democracy advocate, had long been a thorn in the side of the Vietnamese authorities before her arrest in October 2020. Trang was dismissed from her role at VietnamNet in 2009, after being accused of printing t-shirts in opposition to the establishment of Bauxite mines in the Central Highlands. Three years later, she was arrested after attending an anti-China protest in Hanoi. In 2014, disillusioned with state media, she founded Luat Khoa Magazine, an online publication dedicated to the independent analysis of law, politics and human rights in Vietnam.

In May 2016, Trang was detained by police while travelling to Hanoi to meet President Obama to discuss human rights with other civil society activists. In 2018, she was hospitalized after being assaulted by plain clothes police officers who suspected she was distributing copies of her pro-democracy manifesto, Politics for the Common People. Despite this, Trang continued to publish books and articles which criticized the government, while promoting democracy and civil society activism.

Shortly after announcing the release of an updated report into the Dong Tam land dispute violence, which left three police officers and one village elder dead in January 2020, Trang was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on October 6, 2020. The UNWGAD alleges that there is credible evidence that she was arrested arbitrarily, as at the time of her arrest she was not informed of the charges against her. The statement also criticized the Vietnamese authorities for detaining her incommunicado. Only on October 19, 2021, over a year after her arrest, was she allowed to meet with her lawyer for the first time.

In a damning assessment of Vietnam’s human rights record, the statement also identified a trend of “systemic” arbitrary detention, which if continued “may amount to a serious violation of human rights law.” While the government denied that Trang was targeted for her political activism, the working group pointed to an “apparent pattern in Vietnam of harassing and detaining human rights defenders for their work.”

UNWGAD also criticized the legal justification for her arrest. The statement criticized Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code, which criminalizes speech and writing deemed to be hostile to the state, for being “so vague that it is impossible to invoke a legal basis for her detention.” The law stands accused of containing “overly broad language” as it provides no clarification on what constitutes material that opposes or defames the government. Worryingly, 12 activists and online commenters in Vietnam have been arrested and charged using this law in 2021 alone.

To be clear, it is worth pointing out that the Article 117 charge against Trang has since been dropped in favor of the law’s predecessor from the 1999 Criminal Code, Article 88. This is because the bulk of the evidence against Trang predates January 1, 2018, when the 2015 Criminal Code took effect. The two laws are almost identical, however.

On October 25, 28 human rights and freedom of expression organizations released a joint statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Trang ahead of her original trial date on November 4, 2021. It is not yet clear if the postponement of the trial is a response to the statement, or if the outcome of the trial will be affected, but those hoping for leniency from the Vietnamese government may well be disappointed. She faces up to 12 years in prison if she is found guilty. In January 2021, three members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, facing similar charges, received prison sentences ranging between 11 and 15 years for writing articles deemed to be opposing the state.

Worryingly, Vietnam is likely to soon take a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, after announcing its intention to stand as a candidate for the 2023-2025 term earlier this year. If Vietnam is serious about its commitment to human rights, it need not wait until 2023 to start taking action. Releasing Pham Doan Trang would be a good place to start. Repealing the law against anti-state propaganda would be an excellent one.

© 2021 The 88 Project