Can Thi Theu

Current Status: Pre-trial detention

Photo of Can Thi Theu

Other Names: Cấn Thị Thêu

Date of Birth: August 14, 1962

Gender: F

Ethnicity: Kinh

Last Known Prison: Cham Mat Detention Center

Areas of Activism:

  • Land rights

Communities At Risk:

Highlighted Human Rights Concerns:

  • Former Political Prisoner

July 2020:

On July 16, security police summoned Pham Xuan Truong, son-in-law of Can Thi Theu, to inquire about the phone number that his mother-in-law had been using. Truong’s wife, Trinh Thi Thao, said “They asked my husband who was using one of the phone numbers under his name. He told them that he bought that SIM for my mother to use. Then they asked if he knew about the Facebook accounts belonging to my mother and to my brother Trinh Ba Tu. They also warned us not to participate in activism, and told us my mother asked us to send her some medication.”

Details - Background, History of Activism, Family Situation.

Can Thi Theu is from Duong Noi, outside of Hanoi.

Theu is a leading activist against land grabs in Duong Noi, in which fertile land is confiscated by the government, usually for industrial use, and without proper compensation. This issue has been particularly problematic as Vietnam's economy continues to grow. Theu and her family have been victims on forced eviction and land confiscation themselves. Theu has also been a vocal supporter of other political prisoners, such as Nguyen Van Dai, Le Thu Ha, and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, staging a hunger strike for the latter. She also participated in protests after the Formosa environmental disaster began in April 2016.

September 2019:

Our full interview with Can Thi Theu is out now! As one of the leading activist against land grabs, there is no way back from this lifestyle. But it's all worth it. She explains to us why.

Can Thi Theu's husband, Trinh Ba Khiem, was arrested along with Theu in 2014 and sentenced to 18 months (reduced to 14 on appeal). Her two sons, Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong, were briefly detained after their mother's arrest in June 2016. They were both also arrested the same day as Theu on June 24, 2020.

The 88 Project's archives

Defend the Defenders's archives

Sentencing of Land Rights Defender, Can Thi Theu, Front Line Defenders (multiple entries)

Can Thi Theu's Letter from Gia Trung Prison, 20 December 2016, The 88 Project, January 25, 2017

Free Vietnam's Political Prisoners!, Human Rights Watch, November 3, 2017

Vietnam upholds 20-month jail term for land grab protester, Reuters, November 30, 2016 

Interview with Can Thi Theu, The 88 Project

Can Thi Theu's story and the context of land confiscation in Vietnam are told in this bilingual video produced by artist Kim Chi, Hélèna Lee, and friends.


Arrested April 25, 2014. Sentenced to 1 year 3 months in prison under Art. 104 (1999 Code), Art. 257 (1999 Code). Released July 27, 2015.

April 25, 2014
  • Art. 104 (1999 Code)
  • Art. 257 (1999 Code)
August 19, 2014
1 year 3 months in prison
July 27, 2015
  • freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention
  • liberty and security of the person
  • fair trial

Arrested June 11, 2016. Sentenced to 1 year 8 months in prison under Art. 245 (1999 Code). Released February 10, 2018.

June 11, 2016
  • Art. 245 (1999 Code)
September 20, 2016
  • Ha Huy Son
  • Vo An Don
  • Nguyen Kha Thanh
  • Le Van Luan
1 year 8 months in prison
February 10, 2018
  • freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention
  • liberty and security of the person
  • fair trial

First arrest:

Can Thi Theu was arrested in 2014 under Article 257 ("activities against public officials"). She was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The arrest was allegedly for leading a protest in Duong Noi when authorities came to conficate community land.

Latest arrest:

Can Thi Theu was arrested for a second time on June 10, 2016, for leading a nonviolent demonstration of people seeking government accountability for land grabs. She was sentenced to 20 months in prison in September 2016 by the People's Court of Dong Da district. Supporters were systematically blocked from attending her trial and some were assaulted. The sentence was upheld on appeal on November 30, 2016. Shortly thereafter, Theu was transferred from Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi to Gia Trung prison in Gia Lai, 1,000 km from her home. The transfer was interpreted by some as a way to distance Theu from her network of support. She wrote a letter to the community at the time of the transfer. Theu has reported back on severe mistreatment of other prisoners while herself imprisoned. 

November 2017:

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released two opinions deeming the arrests and detentions of land rights activist Can Thi Theu and blogger Tran Thi Nga as arbitrary. The opinions called for swift remedies of the alleged violations of international law in their cases. The opinions condemned the lack of verifiable information about Theu’s health treatment in prison.
February 2018: 

Can Thi Theu upon release. Source: Nguyen Lan Thang
Can Thi Theu was released from prison on February 10, 2018 and returned to her home in Duong Noi, Ha Dong, Ha Noi, where she was warmly welcomed by family, friends, and fellow villagers. Her welcoming home quickly became a demonstration of the determination of the villagers to keep their land from being seized by the government, as Can Thi Theu condemned the illegal forced eviction and vowed to continue her fight, and as her supporters brought flowers and a banner saying "Duong Noi people would die to keep their land" (see picture above). 

Theu went on hunger strike for 13 days following her arrest in 2016; her health faltered as a result. She was reported to be in poor health condition while in prison.

June 2016:

Front Line Defenders released an Urgent Appeal on Theu's behalf.

September 2016:

Human Rights Watch called for Theu's release from prison ahead of her original trial.

October 2016:

Four UN Special Rapporteurs sent a letter to the Vietnamese authorities asking for clarifying information about Can Thi Theu's pre-arrest harassment, arrest, detention, and deprivation of a lawyer, and how those actions fit into established international human rights agreements. They had previously sent a similar letter in June 2016.

September 19, 2018: watched by local commune officials

September 19, 2018
Public security
Ngoc Luong Commune, Yen Thuy District, Hoa Binh Province (map)

freedom of movement

On September 19, 2018, Can Thi Theu and her family were watched by dozens of plainclothes public security officers when she and her husband were on the way to supermarket. On the same day, the first instance court of Dao Quang Thuc, a former teacher, was held in Hoa Binh Province, which could be the reason for this incident.

Police from both Hoa Binh Province and Ha Noi raided every corner of Can Thi Theu’s living place and tried to prevent their family from attending Dao Quang Thuc’s trial.

From nearly 9:00 am, she started to live-stream on Facebook several times about this incident. In one of her videos, she indicated that one of two men in that clip was Mr. Vuong, a public security officer in Ngoc Luong commune. He and a man sitting behind him were following them on a motorcycle. Being filmed, they kept silent, then quietly rode their motorcycle in the opposite direction and stopped after riding only around 20 meters. When Mrs. Theu reached their stand, they left their motorcycle, walked slowly onwards, and went into a local house to escape from the camera.  

In another video, live streamed by Trinh Ba Tu, Can Thi Theu’s son, Hanoi security forces even drove a car, licensed of 29A196.98, to block their way.

July 12, 2019: beaten by thugs when visiting prison No. 6

Physical assault in a public space
July 12, 2019
Hanh Lam ward, Thanh Chuong district, Nghe An province (map)

  • liberty and security of the person
  • freedom of peaceful assembly
  • equal protection of the law
  • freedom from discrimination

On July 12, 2019, Can Thi Theu and 19 family members and supporters of political prisoners were physically attacked by thugs who they believed to be plainclothes prison officers and public security officers. Activist Trinh Ba Phuong, son of Theu, told VOA Vietnamese that the group was on its way to Prison No. 6 with some posters solely to visit and support prisoners such as Truong Minh Duc, who were on hunger strike at the time. When the visitors group tried to approach Camp 6 by car, a truck seemed to purposely park to block the road, so they decided to walk the rest of the way. This is where the attack took place. Activists Trinh Ba Khiem, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Huynh Ngoc Chenh were not only physically assaulted, but their belongings, including money, phones, and personal documents were taken by the attackers.

After the attack, the group was forced to go back to the main road and was escorted to Vinh city, unable to complete the visit.

March 5, 2020: harassed at family home regarding household registration process

Harassment at private residence
March 5, 2020
Public security
Yen Thuy District, Hoa Binh Province (map)

respect of privacy, family, home, and correspondence

Starting on March 5, 2020, the public security of Ngoc Luong commune, Yen Thuy district, Hoa Binh province continuously surrounded the family's home and forced the family to work with them on the issue of their “residency status and household registration." Each of the meetings had at least 10 public security officers present, and some even were in plain clothes. This is highly unusual and highlights the harassment of these procedures. In Vietnam, the household registration and residency status processes rarely attract this many resources.

Arrested June 24, 2020. Charged under Art. 117 (2015 Code).

June 24, 2020
  • Art. 117 (2015 Code)
Hanoi city public security, Hanoi
Her home in Hanoi (map)
  • freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention
  • liberty and security of the person
  • freedom of expression
  • respect of privacy, family, home, and correspondence
  • UN Special Rapporteurs
  • UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

On June 24, authorities surrounded and stormed into Trinh Ba Phuong’s home and arrested him and later his mother, Can Thi Theu (at a different residence). Theu is a former political prisoner (watch our interview with her about her activism, here) who has twice been jailed for her land rights activism, and Phuong is also a well-known activist who is very active in issues of land rights in his own community as well as advocating for the Dong Tam residents in the aftermath of the deadly police raid there in January 2019. Phuong’s wife had given birth just a few days ago prior to his arrest. 

Police also searched a third member of the family’s home– Trinh Ba Tu (Theu’s son and Phuong’s brother)– and arrested him. Tu is also engaged in land rights issues and commentary on the Dong Tam incident. All three members of the family have allegedly been charged under Article 117 but the government has only confirmed that Trinh Ba Tu is charged under Article 117. It is unclear where the three are being held.

November 2020:

The UN Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and on the situation of human rights defenders, as well as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, sent a petition to the Vietnamese government concerning the cases of five people arrested for their reporting on and activistm in the aftermath of the violent police raid in Dong Tam Commune in January 2020: Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu, Pham Doan Trang, and Nguyen Thi Tam. All five were known activists before the Dong Tam raid, particularly in the area of land rights; they are still awaiting trial at the time of this writing. This is Theu’s third arrest. 

The parties wrote of these cases: “We are troubled by the fact that these arrests and the charges brought against them appear to be an attempt to criminalise their efforts to investigate, document and bring public attention to the alleged human rights violations that occurred during the raid.” They expressed concern about the arbitrary arrests and lack of information available to family members and lawyers.They also called on the government to provide more information on the legal basis for the arrests and detentions and the safeguards in place to protect the human rights of activists.

On February 4, 2021, the government of Vietnam finally responded to the UN regarding their concerns over the Dong Tam trial and for political prisoners Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu, Can Thi Theu, Nguyen Thi Tam, and Pham Thi Doan Trang. Not unexpectedly, Vietnam said that “the allegations made in the Joint Communication were not accurate, mostly drawn from unverified sources and did not reflect the nature of these cases.”

Profile last updated: 2021-02-22 00:40:05

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