Vietnam Human Rights Defenders’ Weekly Report for April 20-26, 2020: Amid International Call for Release of Prisoners of Conscience, Vietnam Arrests Pro-democracy Activist with Subversion Allegation
Defend the Defenders | April 26, 2020
Vietnam’s communist regime continues its relentless crackdown on the local dissent, arresting more activists after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and many international rights groups call for release prisoners of conscience amid increasing death threats caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On April 23, authorities in the central province of Nghe An arrested former prisoner of conscience Tran Duc Thach on the allegation of subversion for his membership in the unregistered group Brotherhood for Democracy and posts on Facebook regarding human rights and democracy as well as China’s invasion of Vietnam’s sovereignty in the East Sea (South China Sea).
Mr. Thach, who was imprisoned in 2008-2011 after being convicted of “conducting anti-state propaganda” for voicing against Vietnam’s human rights violations and China’s expansionism in the East Sea, will be held incommunicado for the next four months at least. The 68-year-old activist is facing a tough sentence of over ten years if he is convicted given the lengthy sentences Vietnam’s communist regime has imposed in recent political cases.
His arrest was made three days after the Higher People’s Court in Hanoi rejected the appeal of human rights defender and environmentalist college lecturer Nguyen Nang Tinh, upholding the 11-year sentence given by the People’s Court of Nghe An province in the first-instance hearing on November 15 last year. Mr. Tinh is famous for his posts on Facebook on human rights, democracy, and protection of the country’s waters and islands in the East Sea amid China’s increasing aggressiveness which aims to turn the resource-rich sea into its own lake. He also became well-known musical lecturer teaching kids with patriotic songs.
While China is threatening to use force to take over the Truong Sa (Spratlys) which Vietnam claims and Hanoi repeatedly makes verbal protests against China’s aggressiveness in the East Sea, Vietnam’s communist regime continues to persecute people who voice against China’s illegal claims in the sea. During the week, authorities in the central province of Ha Tinh imposed an administrative fine of VND5 million ($220) over local retired teacher Tran Dinh Tro for his posts on Facebook with content to protest China’s illegal U-shaped line claim in the sea. However, the local newspaper controlled by the regime wrote he was fined for fake news on COVID-19 instead.
Another anti-China activist named Luu Van Vinh is also under persecution while serving his 15-year imprisonment in Gia Trung Prison camp in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai. He has been placed in a solitary cell even having a fever. His wife has not been allowed to visit him nor send him additional food and medicine in recent months as the prison’s authorities take measures to prevent transmission of coronavirus. His telephone call to his family was interrupted after he described the inhumane treatment of the prison guards.
Hanoi-based human rights activist and pro-democracy campaigner Nguyen Thuy Hanh complained that she has been placed de facto under house arrest for weeks as the city’s police are sending plainclothes agents to station near her private residence who block her when she tries to go out. Hanh is well-known for setting and managing a fund to help prisoners of conscience and defenders-at-risks for years.
On April 21, Reuters reported that Facebook has agreed to censor political posts in Vietnam after being pressured by the communist regime. Local Internet service firms have reduced traffic flows of Facebook by switching off servers for Facebook in February-April, making Facebook unaccessible for Vietnamese users. In order to maintain its economic interests in the Southeast Asian nation, Facebook was forced to comply with Vietnamese communists’ requests.
===== April 20 =====
Vietnam Court Upholds 11-year Imprisonment Sentence of Human Rights Activist Nguyen Nang Tinh, Sending Him Back to Jail amid Covid-19 Pandemic
Defend the Defenders: On April 20, the Higher People’s Court in Hanoi rejected the appeal of human rights activist and environmental campaigner Nguyen Nang Tinh, sending him back to jail amid international and domestic calls for releasing all prisoners of conscience to protect them from the Covid-19 outbreak.
At the short appealing in the Monday’s morning in the central city of Vinh, the court upheld Mr. Tinh’s sentence of 11 years in prison and five years of probation given by the Nghe An province’s People’s Court in the first-instance hearing in November last year, in which he was convicted of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the country’s Criminal Code.
His wife has informed Defend the Defenders that he looks very weak and lost his weight from around 80 kg to only 46 kg now, adding that he conducted a 46-day hunger strike in Nghi Kim temporary detention between March 3 and April 17. He ended the fasting just a few days prior to his appeal hearing, she said, nothing her family has not been informed about his hunger strike.
The reason for the hunger strike that the Nghe An province’s authorities refused his request to meet with a Catholic priest during the Lent period.
Mr. Tinh, 44, arrested by Nghe An province’s security forces on May 29, 2019. Authorities in Nghe An said Mr. Tinh has used his Facebook account Nguyễn Năng Tĩnh to post and share articles and videos as well as images with content defaming state leaders and distort the ruling communist party’s policies.
Mr. Tinh, who is a lecturer of Nghe An College of Cultural and Art, is very active in promoting human rights and multi-party democracy, and speak out about the country’s issues such as systemic corruption, human rights abuse, widespread environmental pollution, and China’s violations to Vietnam’s sovereignty in the East Sea (South China Sea) and the weak response of the communist government in Hanoi.
There are some videoclips on Youtube in which Mr. Tinh tough students to sing a number of patriotic songs composed by dissidents in which the government is criticized for suppressing anti-China activists.
His arrest is part of the ongoing crackdown of Vietnam’s communist regime on the local dissent. Dozens of activists have been convicted of or being investigated on the allegation of “conducting anti-state propaganda” for their online posts criticizing the regime’s socio-economic shortcomings regarding systemic corruption, widespread human rights abuse, nationwide environmental pollution and weak response to China’s violations of the country’s sovereignty in the East Sea (South China Sea).
While many countries have released prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, Vietnam’s communist government has ignored the international and domestic call for releasing human rights activists amid growing concerns of the Covid-19 pandemic, continuing imprisoning local activists.
In the last two weeks, Vietnam has arrested two Facebookers, charging them with “conducting anti-state propaganda” or “abuse of democratic freedom” with severe punishment expected.
Vietnam is holding at least 242 prisoners of conscience in prison camps and temporary detention facilities with severe living conditions, according to Defend the Defenders’ statistics.
===== April 21 =====
Exclusive: Facebook agreed to censor posts after Vietnam slowed traffic – sources
Reuters: Facebook’s local servers in Vietnam were taken offline early this year, slowing local traffic to a crawl until it agreed to significantly increase the censorship of “anti-state” posts for local users, two sources at the company told Reuters on Tuesday.
The restrictions, which the sources said were carried out by state-owned telecommunications companies, knocked the servers offline for around seven weeks, meaning the website became unusable at times.
“We believe the action was taken to place significant pressure on us to increase our compliance with legal takedown orders when it comes to content that our users in Vietnam see,” the first of the two Facebook sources told Reuters.
In an emailed statement, Facebook confirmed it had reluctantly complied with the government’s request to “restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal”.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which handles requests from foreign journalists for comment from the government, did not respond to a Reuters request. State telecoms firms Viettel and Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT) also did not respond to requests for comment.
Facebook has faced pressure to take down anti-government content in many countries over the years.
In Vietnam, despite sweeping economic reform and increasing openness to social change, the ruling Communist Party retains tight control of media and tolerates little dissent, ranking 175th of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
To that end, it keeps a close watch on Facebook, which serves over 65 million users as the main platform for both e-commerce and expressions of political dissent.
Early last year, Vietnam accused Facebook of violating a new cybersecurity law by allowing users to post anti-government comments on the platform.
In the months that followed, the human rights group Amnesty International said at least 16 people were arrested, detained or convicted for such posts. In November, state media reported that five more had been jailed.
The cybersecurity law requires foreign companies such as Facebook to set up local offices and store data in Vietnam – although Facebook says it does not store user data in the country.
The Facebook sources said the company typically resists requests to block access to user posts in a specific country, but the pressure of having its local servers impeded had forced it to comply.
“To be clear, that does not mean we will be complying with every request that the government sends us. But we did commit to restricting significantly more content,” one source said.
Facebook’s statement said: “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world …
“However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day”.
===== April 23 =====
Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Vietnam Continues to Stifle Local Dissent, Arresting Third Activist within Two Weeks
Defend the Defenders: While the whole country is focusing on dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, Vietnam’s communist regime does not forget to cement its political monopoly by intensifying its crackdown on local dissent, arresting the third activist within two weeks.
This time, its prey is former prisoner of conscience Tran Duc Thach, 68, from the central province of Nghe An, the home of late communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Thach is a founding member of the unregistered group Brotherhood for Democracy.
On April 23, security forces arrested Mr. Thach on allegation of conducting “Activities against the people’s government” under Article 109 of the country’s Criminal Code, with the highest punishment of 20 years in prison or even death penalty. Police conducted searching for his house, confiscating a laptop, cell phones, a camera as well as VND9 million ($380) and $400, according to his family.
According to the state-controlled media, Mr. Thach has been continuously posting and sharing numerous articles on Facebook with content to distort the regime’s policies with the aim to trigger social disorders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
He was arrested for the first time in 2009 and sentenced to three years in jail and three years of probation on a charge of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the same Penal Code for claiming Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracels) and Truong Sa (Spratlys), the two archipelagos also claimed by China, and demanding human rights improvement in the communist nation. Particularly, Thach, together with activists Vu Van Hung and Nguyen Xuan Nghia hang out a banner which states “Hoang Sa and Truong Sa belong to Vietnam” at Mai Dich Bridge in the capital city of Hanoi. His fellows were also jailed with lengthy sentences.
After leaving the army in 1975, Thach wrote a memoir named “Obsessive mass grave” to describe how communist soldiers assaulted innocent civil people while invading South Vietnam during the Vietnam War in which the communist soldiers with the support of China and the Soviet Unions as well as the communist bloc in Eastern Europe defeated South Vietnam backed by the US and its allies and unified the country in 1975. In 1976, he self-immolated to protest unfair policies of authorities in Nghe An province and Dien Chau district. Due to the act, his face was deformed.
The arrest of Thach was made three days after the communist regime rejected the appeal of human rights activist and environmental campaigner Nguyen Nang Tinh, upholding his sentence of 11 years in prison and five years of probation. Both Thach and Tinh are strongly protesting China’s invasions of Vietnam’s sovereignty in the East Sea.
Last week, China sent a diplomatic note to the UN Secretary-General to reaffirm its illegal claim of nearly entire East Sea, including the two archipelagos Paracels and Spratlys that Vietnam has controlled since the 18th century, and demand Vietnam to withdraw its crews and facilities in the resource-rich sea which is also very important for international trade.
Thach is the third activist being arrested within two weeks. On April 10, authorities in Can Tho arrested Ma Phung Ngoc Phu on allegation of “abusing democratic freedom” and eight days later, Dinh Thi Thu Thuy from Hau Giang province was detained and charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda,” both were arrested for their online posts which are considered harmful for the regime. The arrests were made after the call of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to release prisoners of conscience in a bid to protect their health amid increasing COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 20, the Higher People’s Court in Hanoi upheld the sentence of 11 years in prison and five years of probation against human rights activist Nguyen Nang Tinh, who is also strongly protesting China’s expansionism in the East Sea.
Vietnam’s communist regime has intensified its crackdown on local dissent from late 2015 when the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam prepared for its 12th National Congress. More than 100 activists have been arrested and charged with controversial allegations in the National Security provisions of the Penal Code or the Criminal Code, many of them were sentenced to lengthy imprisonments of between five and 20 years.
BFD is the group that suffered the most from the ongoing persecution campaign of the communist regime. Its nine key members were sentenced to between seven and 15 years in prison, and only two of them, human rights attorney Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Le Thu Ha were freed but forced to live in exile in Germany. It is unknown Thach’s latest arrest related to BFD. In 2017, when Vietnam’s police arrested six key members of the group, he was summoned to a police station and interrogated for days about his activities in it.
With the new arrests, Vietnam is holding at least 245 prisoners of conscience, according to Defend the Defenders’s statistics. More arrests are expected in the coming months as the ruling party is preparing for its 13th five-year congress slated in early 2021.
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