Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 2/2020 – Week of January 6-12

Featured Image: Chung Hoang Chuong, one of the two people already arrested in 2020. Source: Defend the Defenders 

Greetings from The 88 Project! We are bringing you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of January 6-12. After three years in prison, Tran Thi Nga was released early and immediately sent to the United States. Two people have already been arrested in 2020 for their peaceful expressions: Dinh Van Phu on January 9 and Chung Hoang Chuong on January 11. Read analysis on Ho Sy Quyet’s detention last week, as well as a translated statement from Quyet about the events of that day. Violent conflict in Dong Tam commune on January 9 has left at least four people dead, including a local leader who was involved in dispute resolution with the authorities. In the news, read about new legislation regarding US and Asian strategic ties. Coming up this week, eight members of the Hien Phap civil society group face trial on January 14 (correction from last week’s edition, where we mistakenly reported that the trial was to be held on January 10). And don’t forget to check out the Take Action section of our website to see what you can do to support Vietnamese political prisoners and activists at risk.


Prisoners of Conscience
Tran Thi Nga and family’s arrival to Atlanta, Georgia. Source: BPSOS
Tran Thi Nga was released from prison this week and sent immediately into exile in the United States. Nga was about three years into a nine-year prison sentence for her activism in land and labor rights. She is the fourth political prisoner in the past few years who was released early but had to go into exile in exchange for their freedom, following Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (October 2018), Nguyen Van Dai (June 2018), and Le Thu Ha (June 2018). She suffered from many types of harassment during her three years in prison, including being deprived from seeing her sons over 15 months and repeated physical attacks and death threats by cellmates in August-October 2018.
According to Dan Lam Bao, who was among the first Vietnamese independent media to release the news about Nga’s early release, the preparation for Nga’s release had been taking place since the fall of 2019. After U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper visited Vietnam, the Vietnamese authorities agreed to issue travel documents for Nga and her family to leave the country.
The 88 Project team is happy that Tran Thi Nga is now free and reunited with her husband and young children. However, we would like to note that Nga’s early release should not be seen as a sign of improvement in the human rights situation in Vietnam. Early releases in the past few years have been scarce, and political prisoners who were released early all had to leave the country. Those refusing to leave have to remain in prison and potentially face further harassment.
Authorities arrested Dinh Van Phu, resident of Dak R’lap District, Dak Nong on January 9, 2020, on charges of committing propaganda against the State under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code. According to the initial investigation, from the beginning of 2018 to June 2019, Dinh Van Phu used his Facebook pages such as “Jimy Nguyen,” “Vinh Nguyen Jimy,” and “Nguyen Vinh” to post and share articles, broadcast live-streams, and participate in live broadcasts organized by other organizations. Phu also participated in a protest on June 10, 2018, against the draft laws on Cybersecurity and Special Economic Zones. Phu will be detained for at least three months for investigation.

Chung Hoang Chuong. Source: Defend the Defenders and Chuong’s arrest order, Source: Facebook Chuong Tran
On January 11, 2020, the Public Security of Ninh Kieu District, Can Tho Province arrested and detained Chung Hoang Chuong for further investigation. He is accused of “abusing democratic freedoms” and negatively affecting the honor, dignity, and personal credit of the Party leadership and the government. Chung Hoang Chuong has a private Facebook account named Chương May Mắn, on which he posts content about issues of human rights, sovereignty, the environment, and corruption. According to Defend the Defenders, his last post before his arrest was about the incident in Dong Tam commune this week, which left at least four people dead (see below for details on the Dong Tam incident).

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

  • A Yum, activist of the Ba Na ethnic minority group, arrested January 6, 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison (he was due for release from prison this week)
  • Nguyen Van Hoa, blogger, arrested January 11, 2017, and later sentenced to seven years in prison
Activists at Risk
Authorities detained activist Ho Sy Quyet and his wife for several hours on January 3, targeting them for reading books from the Liberal Publishing House in an apparent crackdown on independent reading in the country. Hung Yen province police stormed into their home and searched it without a warrant, and then they detained and questioned the two about the publishing house before finally releasing them later on the same day. They confiscated numerous electronics and vital documents, such as their son’s birth certificate and their household registration booklet. This confiscation has no legal basis since the family has not even been subjected to an administrative penalty, let alone a criminal proceeding. But even if there was an ongoing administrative or criminal proceeding, those confiscated documents play no role in the so-called “unlawful” conduct of Quyet, and thus should not not be seized. According to the Law on Administrative Penalty of Vietnam 2012, the papers and documents confiscated must be appropriate and related to the concerned act (usually a drivers license, professional license, etc.). Household registration booklets, marriage certificates, and birth certificates are not among them. The confiscation of these papers is an unlawful threat and intimidation strategy employed by Vietnamese authorities, as it will severely affect the family’s daily life.
Ho Sy Quyet and his son. Source: Ho Sy Quyet
Read Ho Sy Quyet’s statement on the incident (translated into English), in which he lists all of the confiscated items. “As a citizen, I oppose in the strongest terms possible the action by non-uniformed security police for invading our home and confiscating our belongings without any warrants and not following any legal process,” he writes. Quyet and his wife are the latest in a string of people to be harassed and detained for their alleged affiliation with the publishing house, which publishes books by independent authors covering a wide range of topics, including democracy and human rights. The 88 Project also briefly discussed the harassment against the publishing house in our report on freedom of publication 2018-2019.

A story published online by Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc shows that he is still being subjected to serious harassment from multiple local authorities. From August 2019 until the latest incident on January 7, 2020, Thuc has been unable to attend any religious ceremony in other provinces. Specifically, in August 2019, he intended to participate in a Holy Mass in Dong Nai. However, the local church received threats from the local People’s Committee saying that allowing Thuc to attend the mass would result in the cancellation of the event. Other local churches were under similar pressure to make sure that Thuc could not participate in any Holy Mass in Ho Chi Minh City or Binh Duong. In November, authorities banned Thuc from leaving the country to attend a special mass by the Pope in Japan. He was stopped at the airport in Hanoi and denied the right to travel due to “national security” concerns, according to a letter seen by AFP. Thuc has advocated for those affected by the 2016 Formosa environmental disaster, which left many coastal fishermen without livelihoods.

Environmental Activism/Community at Risk
One civilian and three police officers died after a bloody conflict over land seizures in Dong Tam commune on January 9, 2020.  Several more people were injured or arrested after the incident. Le Dinh Kinh, 84, was killed in the confrontation; Kinh had been a local leader in the fight against the land confiscations. Le Dinh Kinh’s son, Le Dinh Chuc, was seriously injured, and another person, Bui Viet Hieu, 76, is at the burn unit in Hanoi due to injuries.

The area has been the site of many conflicts over the years, as farmers there claim that the government is seizing their land for development of a military airport without providing proper compensation. The Vietnamese reported that police arrived in Dong Tam early in the morning on January 9, targeting the house of Le Dinh Kinh and Le Dinh Cong, another son, specifically. The exact number of police dispatched is unknown, but could be as high as 3,000. Local residents apparently were not notified of the land confiscation formally. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch called for an immediate investigation into the latest incident.

While residents and local activists claim the police were heavily armed with tear gas and other dangerous weapons, state media sources allege that it was the locals who were equipped with threatening weapons. While The 88 Project does not support violence, we do acknowledge that the citizens of Dong Tam have often had to resort to violent means to protect their land from the large response of well-armed and well-organized public security officers. Further, in a country where independent reporting is virtually non-existent, state media reports about the events at Dong Tam should not be accepted without independent verification of their claims.


The Retreat of the Data Localization Brigade: India, Indonesia and Vietnam, Arindrajit Basu, The Diplomat, January 10, 2020: “Despite narrowing localization requirements in response to the global industrial lobby and diplomatic relations, none of the three countries have compromised on their strategic autonomy. The relaxed provisions continue to provide the governments of all three countries the power to step in whenever a foreign internet service provider is not complying with the law or not providing access to data when needed and thereby, preserve sovereign interest.”

Vietnam’s PM Urges Police to Clamp Down on National Security Crimes, Radio Free Asia, January 6, 2020: “On the heels of a report that the Vietnamese government arrested and charged 39 prisoners of conscience in 2019 on charges of violating national security, the country’s prime minister urged the police to step up its efforts against ‘hostile forces and reactionaries.’ Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made his plea to the police, emphasizing the seriousness of national security crime at an annual police ministry conference Sunday.”

Asia Reassurance Initiative Act: Framework for a US Indo-Pacific Strategy?, Carl Thayer, The Diplomat, January 7, 2020: “The Trump administration is presently courting Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines as potential strategic partners in its Indo-Pacific strategy. This creates tension with ARIA’s promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance, and the rule of law. ARIA provides a comprehensive framework for U.S. policy and strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. ARIA’s requirement for specific strategies to address special issues of concern and mandated annual reports on progress made is a good example of the U.S. Congress exercising oversight over the Executive branch. However, President Trump’s track record of going off the rails if he becomes seized by a particular issue suggests that the reassurance offered by ARIA could be overridden or undermined at any time.”


Clockwise, from top left: Le Quy Loc, Doan Thi Hong, Ngo Van Dung, Hoang Thi Thu Vang, Ho Dinh Cuong, and Do The Ha
The People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City will try eight activists starting on January 14 (last week, we incorrectly stated the trial date as January 10). They are: Le Quy LocDoan Thi HongNguyen Thi Ngoc HanhNgo Van DungTran Thanh PhuongDo The HoaHo Dinh Cuong, and Hoang Thi Thu Vang. All were arrested ahead of a planned protest in Ho Chi Minh City in September 2018. Some members face up to fifteen years in prison if convicted. Some of the activists are reportedly members of The Hien Phap (Constitution) group, established on June 16, 2017 with the aim to promote peoples’ understanding of their human rights in the 2013 Constitution. In December 2018, a Hien Phap member, Huynh Truong Ca was sentenced to five and a half years in prison.


In this new year, dozens of people remain in prison or under threat of harassment for their peaceful activism. Did you know that we compile a list of action items you can take on their behalf? Check out the Take Action portal of our website to find the latest actions you can take to support political prisoners and activists at risk in Vietnam.

© 2019 The 88 Project