Can Thi Theu

Current Status: Sentenced to prison

Photo of Can Thi Theu

Other Names: Cấn Thị Thêu

Date of Birth: August 14, 1962

Gender: F

Ethnicity: Kinh

Last Known Prison: Prison No. 5, Thanh Hoa province

Areas of Activism:

  • Land rights

Communities At Risk:

Highlighted Human Rights Concerns:

  • Solitary Confinement
  • Former Political Prisoner
  • Denial of Legal Representation
  • Denial of Adequate Medical Treatment or Supplies
  • Prolonged Incommunicado Detention
  • Harsh Physical and Administrative Conditions
  • Denial of Family Visit/Punitive Prison Transfer

BBC Vietnamese recently interviewed Trinh Thi Thao (Theu's daughter), and Do Thi Thu (Theu's daughter-in-law -- Trinh Ba Phuong’s wife). The video interview can be seen here (in Vietnamese only).

February 2022:

The family of mother and son Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu still have not been allowed to see or call them, even after their trials in May when they were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison each for conducting “anti-State propaganda.” It is alleged that the reason is because of their refusal to take “re-education” courses.

On February 22, Can Thi Theu was moved to Camp 5 in Thanh Hoa Province, and her son Trinh Ba Tu, was moved to Camp 6 in Nghe An Province, hundreds of kilometers away. This will make it even harder for the family to visit them. It’s not clear why they were transferred.

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.

BBC Vietnamese interview with the family, October 2022

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. Sentenced to 8 years in prison and 3 years probation under Art. 117 (2015 Code). Expected Release is June 24, 2028.

June 24, 2020
  • Art. 117 (2015 Code)
Hanoi city public security, Hanoi
Her home in Hanoi (map)
May 5, 2021
The People’s Court of Hoa Binh Province
  • Pham Le Quyen
  • Ngo Anh Tuan
  • Dang Dinh Manh
  • Le Van Luan
8 years in prison and 3 years probation
June 24, 2028
  • freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention
  • liberty and security of the person
  • freedom of expression
  • fair trial
  • respect of privacy, family, home, and correspondence
  • UN Special Rapporteurs
  • Vietnamese civil society groups
  • Article 19
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Amnesty International
  • UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
  • Frontline Defenders
  • Defend the Defenders

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.

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.”

May 2021:

A court in Hoa Binh Province sentenced land rights activists Can Thi Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu to eight years in prison each, with three years of probation to follow, for conducting “anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code. The trial lasted just a few hours. Two relatives were allowed into the courtroom, but Theu’s husband, Trinh Ba Khiem, was not. 

Their lawyer, Manh Dang, reported that in front of the judges, his clients stated their name as “Victim of Communism,” maintained their innocence, and reiterated that they only spoke the truth. He said their level of defiance is something he’d never witnessed in a courtroom before. 

After the trial, Theu's daughter reported that her mother is being held in a small cell with common criminals, some of whom allegedly are HIV-positive. She was denied a request to be tested after trying to break up a fight between other prisoners, which caused her to bleed.

July 2021:

Can Thi Theu’s daughter, Trinh Thi Thao, reported that her mother was put in solitary confinement under harsh summer conditions in a Hanoi prison. Her request to send her mom an electric fan was denied by prison officials. Theu asked to see a lawyer, but her request was ignored.

Later in the month, Thao sent another letter of complaint to the Hoa Binh Prison authorities requesting that the illegal isolation confinement of her mother and brother be stopped. In her letter, she accused prison guards of abusive treatment during the hot summer months and reminded them that by law those in temporary detention are allowed one family visit and one call home a month. 

September 2021:

The appeals hearing for Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu was scheduled for September 17, 2021. Tu’s sister, Trinh Thi Thao, said that investigators were told her brother if he admitted guilt that he could have his sentence reduced to six years. It is not clear if family members will be allowed into the alleged open trial. 


Update: On September 13, the family of Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu requested that their appeal trial, scheduled for September 17, be postponed due to COVID-19. The current lockdown requirements, they said, made it too difficult for the family and the lawyers to travel to attend the trial. They did not receive any response from the court. As a result, the family had to leave its house at 4am on the morning of September 17, according to daughter Trinh Thi Thao, and had to travel 100km to the courthouse. When they arrived, they were told verbally that the trial had been postponed. There was no official notice of any kind.

October 2021:

Trinh Thu Thao, Can Thi Theu’s daughter and the sister of Trinh Ba Tu, sent prison authorities yet another letter asking to be allowed to visit her mother and brother, whom the family has not seen since their arrests 16 months ago.

December 2021:

On Christmas Eve, the appeal trials for land rights activists Can Thi Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu took place in Hanoi. There was no change to their sentences — eight years of prison and three years probation each. Family members who tried to attend the trial were taken by police to a medical clinic and kept there until after the “open trial” concluded. Notes from the lawyers provide a glimpse of how the proceedings went.

May 2021:

Radio Free Asia reported that Theu stated that prior to trial, she was confined to a small cell with several prisoners with HIV/AIDS, and when she tried to break up a fight between them, she was injured. However, the prison authorities denied her the ability to get tested for infection after the incident. 

October 2021:

Trinh Thu Thao reported that lawyers were allowed to visit Theu and Trinh Ba Tu. Tu told his lawyer that when he was arrested the police beat him so severely that he had a kidney contusion and had to be taken to the hospital. His health is OK now, but his mother still has some issues with her eyes. 

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.”

May 2021:

Many organizations spoke out in support of land rights activists Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu after their trial. Human Rights Watch accused Vietnam of violating international human rights standards in the detention of Theu and her son Tu for nine months by denying them access to a lawyer and visits by their family. It also says, “The Vietnamese government should be listening to people like this brave family, not throwing them in jail.” ARTICLE19 called Vietnam “one of the top enemies of freedom of expression in the world,” following the conviction and severe punishment of Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu. It also noted that during the trial the area around the courthouse was blocked off and internet access was throttled. 

Amnesty International described the charges against Can Thi Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu as “bogus” and called on Vietnamese authorities to release them unconditionally: “They are clearly being punished in retaliation for their peaceful activism to expose injustices and human rights violations.” And Vietnam Human Rights Network and Defend The Defenders also issued a joint statement regarding the trial of Theu and Tu, saying that the proceedings did not follow Vietnamese laws and calling on the National Assembly to remove Article 117 (anti-state propaganda) from the 2015 Criminal Code.

April 2022:

Family members of Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu issued a petition calling on international human rights organizations to increase pressure on the Vietnamese government to release the trio of land rights activists who were jailed after reporting on the bloody Dong Tam raid.

Profile last updated: 2023-05-06 19:12:30

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

© 2022 The 88 Project . The 88 Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization registered in the state of Illinois, United States.