Vietnam Human Rights Defenders’ Weekly October 23-29, 2017: Pro-democracy Activist, Anti-corruption Campaigner Jailed on Allegation of Anti-state Propaganda

Defend the Defenders, October 29, 2017

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On October 25, the People’s Court of Thai Nguyen convicted pro-democracy activist and anti-corruption campaigner Phan Kim Khanh, sentencing him to six years in prison and four years under house arrest on allegation of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the country’s 1999 Penal Code.

The so-called open trial lasted only a few hours. Only Mr. Khanh’s father was allowed to enter the courtroom, while other relatives and activists had to stay away from the court areas, which was under heavy police protection.

Before and after the trial, international and domestic human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Pen America and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, called on Vietnam to release him, saying his activities were inline with Vietnamese law.

Security forces continued their persecution against the Brotherhood for Democracy after arresting its seven key figures and charging them with subversion under Article 79 of the Penal Code. During the week, police summoned former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Xuan Nghia and interrogated him about the organization. Mr. Nghia was said to have left the organization only two months after joining.

Police have constantly intimidated the family of school teacher Pham Ngoc Lan, another member of the Brotherhood for Democracy, who was forced to abandon her work and live in shelter after being interrogated by security officers for several days in early September.

The Catholic community in Song Ngoc parish, Dien Chau district, Nghe An province is concerned with the Red Flag Group, consisting of pro-government thugs, which said it will hold a meeting near the parish. In the past few months, pro-government thugs have carried out a number of attacks targeting priests and followers in Nghe An and Dong Nai provinces.

And other news


===== October 24 ======

Vietnam: Drop Charge Against Student Activist

Human Rights Watch: Vietnam should drop all charges and immediately release student blogger Phan Kim Khanh, Human Rights Watch said today. Vietnam’s donors and regional leaders should make it clear that they will demand that all political prisoners be released before the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit taking place in Da Nang the week of November 6-11.

Phan Kim Khanh is set to face trial on October 25, 2017, at the People’s Court of Thai Nguyen province. He was arrested in March 2017 for posts critical of the government on the internet and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code, one of the country’s many national security provisions that has been regularly used to arbitrarily punish critics and stifle dissent. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years of imprisonment.

“The bogus crime of conducting propaganda against the state is designed to silence peaceful critics of the Vietnamese authorities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Vietnam ought to get rid of these laws and stop persecuting students and ordinary people for just talking about the country’s problems on the internet.”

Phan Kim Khanh, 24, is a student at the Department of International Relations at Thai Nguyen University. During his freshmen year, he helped found and manage a student club at the university to facilitate volunteer work. Later, he served as a member of the secretariat of the board of the student association. Phan Kim Khanh received many awards from the Thai Nguyen Students Association and the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth League of Thai Nguyen province. He also received a 2015 scholarship to attend a training course provided by the U.S Embassy in Hanoi for members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).

Students should be encouraged to write about social and political problems—not punished. International donors and trade partners need to step up pressure on the country’s leaders to improve its abysmal rights record, and the APEC Summit is a good moment to start.

Brad Adams- Asia Director

In a published personal statement, he wrote: “I was born in a village in Phu Tho where everybody woke up very early in the morning to work hard to earn their livings. Some would go to the field to cut fresh vegetable and carry them to the market to sell. Others quickly lit their charcoal fire to warm up rice and some left-over food from the night before and promptly left home for their morning shift at the industrial brick kiln. They worked hard and struggled all day, but their lives remained poor… During my sophomore and junior year at the university, I began to examine the problems why Vietnam could not become a developed country… I want to work for genuine media in a near future. I would like to participate in the struggle movement for democracy and freedom of press in Vietnam.”

Police arrested Phan Kim Khanh on March 21, 2017, for founding and managing two blogs in 2015 called “Newspaper of [anti]Corruption” (Bao Tham Nhung) and “Vietnam Weekly” (Tuan Viet Nam). In addition, he allegedly opened three accounts on Facebook and two accounts on YouTube. The authorities accuse him of “continuously publishing information with fabricated and distorted contents that aim to oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; most of these contents were taken from other reactionary websites.”

Phan Kim Khanh’s arrest is part of Vietnam’s ongoing crackdown on bloggers and activists. Within the last 12 months, the police have arrested at least 28 people and charged them with vaguely-interpreted national security violations. The most recent arrest occurred on October 17 when police detained environmental activist Tran Thi Xuan in Ha Tinh and charged her with alleged activities that aim to overthrow the government.

Blogger Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha remain in police custody since December 2015 without trial. The initial charge against them was propaganda against the state. In July 2017, it was changed to subversion.

More than 100 activists are currently serving prison terms for exercising their basic freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion. Vietnam should unconditionally release them and repeal all laws that criminalize peaceful expression.

“The only crime Phan Kim Khanh committed was to express political views disapproved by the authorities,” said Adams. “Students should be encouraged to write about social and political problems—not punished. International donors and trade partners need to step up pressure on the country’s leaders to improve its abysmal rights record, and the APEC Summit is a good moment to start.”


===== October 25 ======

Vietnam Pro-democracy Activist, Anti-corruption Campaigner Sentenced to Six Years in Prison

Defend the Defenders: Vietnam’s authorities have convicted pro-democracy activist and anti-corruption campaigner Phan Kim Khanh, sentencing him to six years in prison and four years under house arrest.

In a so called “open trial,” which lasted only a few hours on October 25, the People’s Court in the northern province of Thai Nguyen found Mr. Khanh guilty of using the Internet to propagandize plural democracy, military de-politicization, free election and press freedom, his lawyer Ha Huy Son said.

The activities of Khanh, a university student, violated the country’s law, particularly Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code, the judge said, adding the defendant had contacted the California-based pro-democracy organization Vietnam Reform Party (Viet Tan), which is labeled by Hanoi as terrorist group.

The trial was held under strict security as security forces blocked all roads leading to the court areas to prevent his relatives, friends, and activists from coming to observe the trial. Only his father was allowed to enter the courtroom, while his mother and sister were denied.

Dozens of activists from many localities gathered outside of the courtroom to support him. Local authorities sent plainclothes police and pro-government thugs to harass them; however, no physical attacks were reported as in other political cases.

One day before the trial, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling on the Vietnamese government to release Mr. Khanh immediately and unconditionally. Reporters Without Borders also condemned his arrest and the allegations against him, saying Khanh is innocent.

Mr. Khanh, who was arrested on March 21 while taking an undergraduate course at Thai Nguyen University, was not permitted to meet with his lawyer to prepare his defense until September 20, after six months of incommunicado detention.

The charges against Khanh, who is an excellent second-year student and president of the Student Association of the university’s International Studies Faculty, arise from police allegations that he uses his social media channels to propagandize anti-sate information. The police specifically mentioned the following accounts they attributed to Khanh: “Bao Tham nhung” (Corruption Newspaper” and “Tuan bao Viet Nam” (Vietnam Weekly) and three Facebook accounts namely “Bao Tham nhung,” “Tuan bao Viet Nam” and “Dan chu TV” (Democracy TV) as well as two Youtube channels namely “Viet Bao TV” and “Vietnam Online.”

Activists said the websites and Facebook accounts Khanh manages provide real news on Vietnam, particularly on the country’s systemic corruption, an issue the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has vowed to deal with.

Khanh comes from a poor family with two elderly parents. He has been one of nearly 20 activists arrested by Vietnam’s government on allegations of conducting anti-state activities since the beginning of 2017.

In July-September, Vietnam imprisoned three activists, namely Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Mother Mushroom), Tran Thi Nga, and Nguyen Van Oai. The first two were convicted of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 and sentenced to ten years and nine years in prison, respectively. Mr. Oai was sentenced to five years in jail and four years under house arrest on charges of “resisting individuals in the performance of official duties,” under Article 257 and “failing to execute judgments” under Article 304 of the Penal Code.

In order to keep the country under a one-party regime, the Vietnamese communist government frequently uses controversial articles such as 79, 88, and 258 of the national security provisions of the Penal Code to silence local dissidents, human rights defenders, social activists, and bloggers.

According to international human rights organizations, Vietnam is holding around 150 prisoners of conscience. Hanoi always denies such charges, claiming it only imprisons those who have violated the law.

Vietnam is among the world’s biggest enemies of Internet freedom, imprisoning dozens of journalists and bloggers. It was ranked 178th out 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 Press Freedom Index.


“Blogging is not a Crime”: Blogger’s Six-Year Sentence Appalling Example of Punishing Free Expression

PEN America: The conviction and sentencing of Vietnamese blogger Phan Kim Khánh to six years’ imprisonment on charges of “propaganda against the state” is yet another appalling example of Vietnam’s relentless criminalization of the right to free expression, PEN America said today.

Phan Kim Khánh, a student and blogger, was convicted on October 25 under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code of “propaganda against the state.”Khánh was sentenced to six years imprisonment as well as an additional four years of probation. The charges stem from Khánh’s operation of two blogs, ‘Báo Tham nhũng’ [Anti-corruption Newspaper] and ‘Tuần Việt Nam’ [Vietnam Weekly], as well as related Facebook and YouTube accounts. Addressing the court, Khánh reportedly acknowledged running the social media platforms but questioned how blogging on the subject of corruption could constitute a crime. Khánh was first arrested in March 2017 and was kept in pre-trial detention until his October 25 trial—more than half a year later. According to his lawyer, Khánh’s family was unable to visit him in this time. In the days before the trial, Khánh’s lawyer noted that his health was weak. His October 25 trial—in which he was both convicted and sentenced—lasted less than a day.

Article 88 has been widely used to prosecute bloggers and others the Vietnamese government views as dissidents, and enables the court to impose draconian prison sentences. Other notable Vietnamese bloggers prosecuted under Article 88 include internationally-recognized Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, or “Mother Mushroom,” and Nguyen Huu Vinh, or “Ahn Ba Sam,” along with his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy.

“This is another painfully clear example of a Vietnamese blogger punished for their free expression,” said James Tager, Senior Manager of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “Blogging is not a crime, despite Vietnam’s repeated efforts to treat it as one. Phan Kim Khánh should be released immediately, and the Vietnamese government should recognize that Article 88 is completely inconsistent with international guarantees regarding the right to free expression.”

PEN America has raised concerns in the past regarding Vietnamese bloggers and writers including Ahn Ba Sam, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, and Mother Mushroom, and featured the cases of imprisoned Vietnamese bloggers in March 2017.


VCHR denounces Vietnam’s use of “national security” provisions to deprive

PARIS, 25th October 2017 (VCHR) – The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) strongly protests Vietnam’s systematic crackdown on the fundamental rights of citizens to freedom of expression, association, religion or belief and the right to participate in public affairs on the pretext of protecting “national security”. Today’s sentencing of a student, Phan Kim Khánh to six years in prison and four years house arrest for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (Article 88 of the Criminal Code) is the latest example of this alarming trend.

Phan Kim Khánh, 24, a student in international relations at Thái Nguyên University was arrested on 21st March 2017 for posting “fabricated and distorted” information against the state since 2015 on his two blogs, three Facebook accounts and two Youtube accounts. He is also accused of being in contact with “reactionary elements” in Vietnam and overseas. Born into a poor family, he denounced endemic corruption, lack of democracy and lack of press freedom which he believes are the main obstacles to Vietnam’s development.

Khánh was convicted at an unfair trial at the People’s Court in Thái Nguyên province (north of Hanoi). He was denied access to adequate defence, and, as is the custom in “national security” trials, his guilty sentence was decided in advance. Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which is routinely invoked to detain government critics and human rights defenders, has been strongly denounced by the United Nations as inconsistent with international human rights law.

“Phan Kim Khánh’s sole “crime” was to peacefully express his legitimate views. His unfair trial and groundless conviction show just one thing: that Vietnam is afraid of criticism; it feels threatened when its citizens communicate, get together and share concerns about their country’s future”, said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái.

Today’s sentence takes place against a backdrop of escalating repression in Vietnam in which many bloggers, human rights defenders, political and religious dissidents have been arrested and condemned to harsh prison sentences. Several have been convicted under the notorious Article 88, such as blogger Mẹ Nấm (10 year sentence, 29 June 2017) or labour rights and land rights activist Trần Thị Nga (9 years, 25 July 2017).

VCHR is particularly concerned about the recent spate of arrests of citizens on charges of subversion (“activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” – Article 79 of the Criminal Code). This vaguely-worded crime, which makes no distinction between violent acts and the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or participation in public affairs, is punishable by death.

Most recently, on 17th October 2017, Catholic activist Trần Thị Xuân, 41, was arrested at her home in Hà Tĩnh Province under Article 79 of the Criminal Code. According to information published in the Vietnamese official press today (Thanh Niên and Pháp Luật), she is accused of being a member of the unofficial Brotherhood for Democracy (Hội Anh Em Dân Chủ – she reportedly headed the Brotherhood’s section in Central Vietnam in 2016), posting information and photos on the Internet slandering the Communist Party and state, calling for demonstrations and receiving 170 million VND from “reactionary and terrorist organizations overseas and extremist elements in Vietnam”. Ms. Xuân had participated in protests in 2016 against the massive fish deaths and pollution caused by the Taiwanese company Formosa. She is also actively engaged in youth activities in her local parish.

Human rights lawyer Nguyễn Văn Đài, founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy, has been imprisoned without trial since December 2015. Initially charged under Article 88, on 30th July 2017 the charge was changed to subversion under Article 79. Five other members of the group were arrested in July-August 2017, and all face harsh prison sentences for this capital crime.

===== October 27 =====

Former Political Prisoner Summoned, Interrogated about Brotherhood for Democracy for Nine Days

Defend the Defenders: Vietnam’s authorities summoned former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Xuan Nghia from the northern city of Haiphong to a police station over the past nine days to question him about the Brotherhood for Democracy, an online organization which has been the main target of the ongoing crackdown.

After interrogation in the afternoon of October 27, police officers said they would not summon Mr. Nghia for further interrogation on issues related to the Brotherhood for Democracy, seven key members of which have already been arrested on allegation of subversion under Article 79 of the country’s 1999 Penal Code.

During the past nine days starting from October 17, security officers from the Ministry of Public Security and the city’s Police Department interrogated him about his relations with imprisoned key figures of Brotherhood for Democracy, such as Nguyen Trung Ton, Pham Van Troi and Nguyen Van Tuc, who were arrested a few months ago and charged with “carrying out activities aiming to overthrow the government.”

He was forced to go report to the police station in the early mornings and not allowed to return to his private residence until late in the afternoons.

Police also questioned him about Facebook postings on human rights and democracy under the nickname Nguyen Xuan Nghia.

Police said Mr. Nghia would not face detention as he had left the Brotherhood for Democracy two months after joining. However, they asked him to pledge not to join unregistered organizations, which are “harmful” for the communist regime.

Mr. Nghia’s wife said he is exhausted after being questioned for eight hours every day.

Mr. Nghia spent six years in prison in 2008-2013 on allegation of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the Penal Code. His three-year probation period only just ended last year.

The 68-year-old poet, writer, and journalist is a member of the Haiphong   Writers’ Association and one of the co-founding members of the 8406 Bloc, a banned pro-democracy organization in Vietnam.

His writings have been banned for publication since 2003 since they promote multi-party democracy and human rights in the communist nation.

Two years ago, he was honored with the Freedom of Expression Prize of the Norwegian Authors’ Union for his writings, which aim to promote multi-party democracy and human rights.

After being released from prison, he continues to work to promote multi-party democracy and human rights in the one-party state.

He has been under constant harassment from local police who have often placed him under house arrest or summoned him to the police station for interrogation.

Sometimes, local police also sent plainclothes agents and thugs to assault other activists attempting to visit him.

The interrogation of Mr. Nghia this time is part of Vietnam’s ongoing crackdown on local activists in which the Brotherhood for Democracy and California-based Vietnam Reform Party are the main targets. Ten activists from the two organizations have been detained in the last few months and charged with subversion.

Facing a number of obstacles, including poor economic performance, systemic corruption, serious environmental pollution, China’s increasing aggressiveness in the East Sea (South China Sea), the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam and its government have intensified persecution against local activists in order to prevent the formation of opposition party.

The government has also tightened online activities to silence netizens. A number of bloggers have been imprisoned in the past few years.


Vietnam dissident’s daughter calls on Melania Trump for help

Reuters: The 10-year-old daughter of a jailed Vietnamese blogger, “Mother Mushroom”, has appealed to U.S. First Lady Melania Trump to help win her mother’s release ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam next month.

The handwritten letter, posted on Facebook on Thursday, drew attention to Vietnam’s biggest crackdown on dissidents in years before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, 37, known as “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom), is one of Vietnam’s most prominent activists. She was jailed for 10 years in June for publishing anti-state reports, including one about deaths in police custody.

Her daughter Nguyen Bao Nguyen, nicknamed “Mushroom”, referred to Trump’s upcoming visit to Vietnam and the “International Women of Courage Award” awarded by the First Lady to Quynh in March, which drew an angry response from Hanoi.

“Please help my family re-unite because I know my mother did nothing wrong,” Nguyen wrote in the letter, published on Quynh’s mother’s Facebook Page.

“We love our mother so much and just want her to come back to us,” said Nguyen, who turns 11 on Saturday.

Vietnam’s government did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

“The United States has advocated for Ms. Quynh’s release, and the release of all prisoners of conscience, multiple times with high-level Vietnamese officials in the run-up to the President’s visit to Vietnam – including in recent days and weeks,” U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius told Reuters.

Despite sweeping economic reform and increasing openness to social change, media censorship remains tight in Vietnam and criticism of the Communist state is not tolerated.

At least 17 dissidents have been arrested this year in a crackdown that followed changes within the ruling party hierarchy and a growing number of environmental protests. Vietnam has carried out a simultaneous crackdown on corruption.

Trump is set to attend the APEC forum in the seaside resort of Danang, besides making an official visit to Vietnam.

“International donors and trade partners need to step up pressure on the country’s leaders to improve its abysmal rights record, and the APEC summit is a good moment to start,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Quynh’s mother, Nguyen Tuyet Lan, is now looking after Nguyen and her four-year-old brother “Bear”. She told Reuters: “My daughter did nothing wrong; just consider what she did as constructive criticism for society.”

===== October 28 =====

Vietnam Security Forces Intimidate Family of Female Activist Pham Ngoc Lan

Defend the Defenders: Vietnam’s security forces have been intimidating the family of Pham Ngoc Lan, a female member of the Brotherhood for Democracy (BFD), for months after interrogating her in September.

Ms. Lan, a school teacher in the northern province of Ninh Binh, said police officers have summoned her former husband to the police station to question him about her activities as a BFD member. Her younger brother was also summoned by the police but refused.

Police have also come to her mother’s private residence in Ninh Binh to search the house and take away some of her personal items. Police officers threaten to arrest other members of the family if they refuse to cooperate with them in collecting information about Ms. Lan, who was forced to live in shelter from mid-September.

Police officers have said her activities in BFD are harmful for the regime.

The family said security forces are seeking her and keeping her mother’s private residence under close surveillance.

Under police pressure, her ex-husband has not allowed her to contact her own son who is living with his father.

On September 6, security forces came to Ms. Lan’s school to order her to stop teaching and go to a local police station where police officers interrogated her about her online activities and membership in the Brotherhood for Democracy.

Police officers from the Ministry of Public Security and a local department questioned her for several days. In mid-September, in order to avoid being interrogated further, she left the province and lives in shelter.

Ms. Lan is among thousands of Vietnamese netizens using Facebook and other social networks to express their opinions on the country’s issues, including systemic corruptions, human rights violations, China’s violations of the country’s sovereignty in the East Sea (South China Sea) and environmental pollution. She has joined BFD, an online group fighting for human rights enhancement and multi-party democracy.

Due to her online activities, she has been unfairly treated by the educational authorities in her native Yen Mo district. Despite being a good teacher, she cannot get a promotion and salary increase or other privileges she deserves for her good job.

Despite the discrimination, she continues to work hard and gain respect from her students. She also obtained a master degree in chemistry from Vinh University in August.

Considering BFD as a potential political opponent, the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam and its government have launched crackdown on the organization, arresting its seven key members, including co-founders Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Van Troi, and charged them with subversion under Article 79 of the country’s 1999 Penal Code.

More arrests and detentions of the organization’s members and other activists are expected as Vietnam is preparing for the APEC Summit slated for Danang in November, with participation of many global leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump.

===== October 29 =====

Song Ngoc Parish on Alert as Pro-government Thugs Form Red Flag Group

Defend the Defenders: The Catholic community in the Song Ngoc parish, Dien Chau district, Nghe An province is on alert after the formation of a so-called Red Flag Group, a group of pro-government thugs.

The local Catholic followers are very concerned after the local authorities announce that the group will hold a meeting in a place near the parish on October 29.

In the past few months, pro-government thugs have been carrying out many attacks targeting local priests and followers in Song Ngoc and Tho Xuan in the southern province of Dong Nai.

In response to the thugs’ move, priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc sent a letter to authorities in Dien Chau district and Nghe An province to request the local government to take measures to protect Catholic followers.