Vietnam Human Rights Defenders’ Weekly Report for January 1-10, 2021: Three IJAVN’s Members Sentenced to 37 Years in Prison for “Conducting Anti-state Propaganda”
Defend the Defenders, January 10, 2021
On January 5, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City convicted three members of the unregistered professional group Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the country’s Criminal Code, sentencing them to a combined total 37 years in prison and nine years of probation. IJAVN President Dr. Pham Chi Dung was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the lengthiest imprisonment imposed for Article 117, Vice President Nguyen Tuong Thuy and member Le Huu Minh Tuan were sentenced to 11 years in prison each. They were also asked to pay administrative fines of between VND180 million ($7,760) and over VND1 billion. They were accused of writing many articles harmful for the communist regime, operating IJAVN’s website, and receiving financial support abroad to finance anti-state activities.
After the trial, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, the EU, the US and numerous international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), FIDH, the Committee to Protect Journalists, etc. condemned Vietnam’s regime, requesting Hanoi to free the three activists immediately and unconditionally as well as other government critics.
Defend the Defenders, together with the California-based Vietnam Human Rights Network and the Australia-based Human Rights Relief Foundation issued a joint statement calling on the Vietnamese communist regime to respect its international commitments and release all prisoners of conscience, including the three members of the association.
Three days later, the Higher People’s Court in HCM City rejected the appeals of four members of the unsanctioned group Hiến Pháp (Constitution), upholding the prison sentences of Ms. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh, Mr. Ngo Van Dung, Mr. Le Quy Loc, and Mr. Ho Dinh Cuong, who were sentenced to between five years and eight years in prison by the People’s Court of HCM City in the first-instance hearing on July 31, 2020. They were among eight members of the group who were arbitrarily detained in early September 2018 and charged with “disruption of security” under Article 118 of the Criminal Code. Their conviction was likely due to their participation in the mass demonstration in HCM City on June 10, 2018 which aimed to protest two bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security, and their plan to hold a peaceful demonstration in early September of the same year.
On January 7, a district court in the southern province of Dong Nai sentenced local Facebooker Nguyen Van Nhanh to one year in prison for “offending” local officials he said had mismanaged local land disputes. He was accused of conducting livestreams in May-June last year in which he defamed Trang Bom district Chairwoman Vu Thi Minh Chau and her deputy Luong Thi Lan.
In late December last year, Vietnam convicted three Facebookers Nguyen Dang Thuong, Huynh Anh Khoa, and Tran Trong Khai of “abusing democratic freedom” under Article 331 of the Criminal Code for administrating an open Facebook group discussing Vietnam’s socio-economic issues. On December 21, a district People’s Court sentenced them to 18 months, 15 months and 12 months in prison, respectively. The three Facebookers were without legal assistance during their pre-trial detention and the hearing. Their relatives were not permitted to enter the courtroom to observe the trial.
One day later, authorities in the Mekong Delta hub of Can Tho arrested female activist Le Thi Binh and charged her with “abusing democratic freedom” under Article 331 of the Criminal Code. They accuse her of posting anti-state statuses on her Facebook page. The 45-year-old activist is also a member of Hiến Pháp group.
Vietnam remains one of the largest prisons in Asia for political dissidents, social activists, Facebookers and human rights defenders. According to Defend the Defenders’ latest statistics, the communist regime keeps at least 258 prisoners of conscience in inhumane living conditions in prison camps and temporary detention centers across the nation.
===== January 5 =====
Vietnam Convicts Three Independent Journalists for “Conducting Anti-state Propaganda,” Sentencing Them to Total 37 Years in Prison
Defend the Defenders: On January 5, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City found three members of the unregistered professional group Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN), Dr. Pham Chi Dung, Mr. Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Mr. Le Huu Minh Tuan guilty of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Clause 2 of Article 117 of the country’s Criminal Code.
The court sentenced them to a combined total 37 years in prison. Dr. Dung was sentenced to 15 years in prison and the two remaining were given 11 years in prison each. In addition, each of them was given three years of probation and forced to pay large administrative fines of between VND180 million ($7,760) and over VND1 billion, said Mrs. Pham Thi Lan, the wife of Mr. Thuy.
The sentence given to Dr. Dung is the highest for Article 117 to date. Last year, Mr. Nguyen Trung Linh was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the same charge.
The hearing lasted only from early morning to early afternoon of Tuesday. Only one family member of each defendant was permitted to enter the courtroom. It was likely that diplomatic representatives from the US and the EU were allowed to monitor the hearing inside the courtroom.
Numerous activists from Hanoi and HCM City reported that they were placed under house arrest on Tuesday and several days prior to the hearing as the local authorities want to prevent them from gathering near the court areas.
Dr. Dung, 54, is co-founder and incumbent president of IJAVN while Mr. Thuy, 70, is its vice president. Mr. Tuan, 31, is among youngest members of the organization.
Mr. Dung was arrested on November 21 in 2019 while Mr. Thuy was detained on May 23 2020 and Mr. Tuan was taken into police custody one month later. The trio had been held incommunicado since their detention. Their families only allowed to provide additional food and basic stuff. One month before the trial, they were allowed to meet with their lawyers for the first time to prepare for their defense.
The arrest and prosecution of the three members of the IJAVN is a part of the Vietnamese communist regime’s ongoing crackdown on local dissent which has intensified since late 2015. Hundreds of activists have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted with heavy sentences under controversial articles in the National Security provisions of the Criminal Code, which the international community has called on Vietnam to remove as they have been used to silence local activists.
The IJAVN was established in 2014 to fight for freedom of the press in Vietnam where the communist regime has a tight control over the official media. Thousands of articles of independent journalists covering the country’s issues such as human rights violations, systemic corruption, widespread environmental pollution, the government’s weak response to China’s violation of the country’s sovereignty in the East Sea (South China Sea), and other socio-economic problems have been posted on the organization’s website https://vietnamthoibao.org/ (VN). The three journalists have a number of articles criticizing the communist government for failing to properly address the country’s issues as well as giving interviews to foreign media.
Vietnam’s security forces have also harassed and intimidated other members of the IJAVN in recent years. A number of its members in Hanoi, HCM City, and other localities have been summoned for interrogation for their membership in the organization and their writing. Police have also blocked them from gathering or meeting with foreign guests or diplomats since the organization’s establishment while its website is regularly attacked and still placed under a firewall for the local readers.
Since their arrests, the EU, the US and other foreign governments, as well the international community including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Defend the Defenders and local activists have called on the Vietnamese regime to free the three activists immediately and unconditionally and drop the charges against them. In its press release on January 4, HRW also urged Vietnam to release the trio.
Ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party for decades, Vietnam has been listed at the bottom of RSF’s Freedom Press Index for many years, ranked at 175th among 180 countries in 2020. In early December, the CPJ and RSF listed Vietnam among the biggest prisons for journalists in the world, holding 28 journalists and Facebookers behind bars. On December 16, authorities in the Mekong Delta hub Can Tho arrested well-known independent journalist and famous Facebooker with 168,000 followers Truong Chau Huu Danh on the allegation of “abusing democratic freedom” under Article 331 of the Criminal Code, which caries a potential maximum imprisonment of seven years.
Currently, Vietnam is holding at least 258 prisoners of conscience, according to Defend the Defenders’ latest statistics. Among them, 49 bloggers and activists have been arrested or convicted of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the Penal Code 1999 or Article 117 of the Criminal Code 2015. Among them is prominent human rights defender and well-known political blogger Pham Doan Trang.
===== January 7 =====
Vietnamese Facebook User Jailed For One Year For ‘Offending’ Officials
RFA: A court in southern Vietnam’s Dong Nai province on Thursday sentenced a Facebook user to a year in jail for “offending” local officials he said had mismanaged local land disputes, according to reports in Vietnamese state media.
Nguyen Van Nhanh was convicted by the People’s Court of Dong Nai’s Trang Bom district for posting videos online between May and June last year that prosecutors said were intended to defame district chairwoman Vu Thi Minh Chau and deputy chairwoman Luong Thi Lan.
After seeing the videos, the two women had denounced Nhanh to local police, leading to his arrest, media sources said.
At his trial, Nanh said his posts had been meant only to raise concerns over what he called the unsatisfactory outcome of the officials’ handling of land disputes in which local householders’ interest had been harmed, and that he had not intended to defame the pair.
However, judges rejected Nanh’s defense and jailed him for a year at the end of his one-day trial.
Also on Thursday, a court in southern Vietnam’s Binh Duong province fined a Facebook user for postings offending local police, while a woman in Ho Chi Minh City was arrested for running online “scams” after posting videos on her Facebook page criticizing police corruption.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hong, a resident of Binh Duong’s Dau Tieng district, was fined VND 7.5 million (U.S. $322) for a Dec. 6 Facebook posting accusing local police officers of theft after they stopped her motorbike during a traffic stop.
Hong was fined for “offending the honor and prestige” of the police and was forced to promise not to re-offend, media sources said.
Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy, owner of a Facebook account called Bich Thuy TV, with more than 300,000 “likes” from viewers, was arrested on Thursday by police in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Chanh district and held for investigation into running scams and “seizing assets” under Article 174 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Police provided no details of Thuy’s alleged crimes in their announcement of the arrest.
Thuy had earlier received a two-year and six-month suspended sentence on related charges in 2011 in Dong Nai’s Xuan Loc district, but had also frequently posted videos on Facebook criticizing lawbreaking by local traffic police and promoting charitable work helping disadvantaged families in several areas.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent deteriorated sharply last year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in January.
===== January 8 =====
Vietnam Court Upholds Sentences of Four Members of Constitution Group, Sending Them Back to Prison
Defend the Defenders: On January 8, the Higher People’s Court in Ho Chi Minh City rejected the appeals of four members of the unsanctioned group Hiến Pháp (Constitution), upholding the sentences given by the People’s Court of HCM City at the first-instance hearing on July 31 last year, Defend the Defenders has learned.
According to the court’s decision, Ms. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh has to serve eight years in prison and three years of probation while Mr. Ngo Van Dung, Mr. Le Quy Loc and Mr. Ho Dinh Cuong have to spend next five years behind bar followed by two years of probation each. They were arrested in early September 2018 on the allegation of “disruption of security” under Article 118 of the Criminal Code.
Nearly five months ago, at the first-instance hearing, the People’s Court of HCM City convicted eight members of the unsanctioned group Hiến Pháp (Constitution) of “disruption of security” for their active participation in the mass demonstration to protest two bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security in HCM City on June 10, 2018 and their plan to hold peaceful protests in early September of the same year. After just one day review, the court gave Ms. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh eight years in prison, Mrs. Hoang Thi Thu Vang- seven, Ms. Doan Thi Hong two and half years, Mr. Ngo Van Dung, Mr. Do The Hoa and Mr. Le Quy Loc five years each, Mr. Ho Dinh Cuong four and half years, and Mr. Tran Thanh Phuong three and half years in prison.
In addition, Mr. Dung, Mr. Cuong, Mr. Phuong, and Ms. Hong were given two years of probation after serving their imprisonment. Four others were given three-year probation.
After the trial, four of them, Ms. Hanh, Mr. Dung, Mr. Loc and Mr. Cuong protested the court’s decisions and appealed.
Hiến Pháp was established in 2017 with the aim of enhancing civil rights in Vietnam by disseminating the country’s Constitution which was ratified by the communist-controlled parliament in 2013. The eight convicted members, together with others of the group were active during the mass demonstration in HCM City on June 10, 2018 in which tens of thousands of people from all social classes rallied on streets to protest two bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security. The first bill is considered to favor Chinese investors to purchase land in Vietnam amid increasing concerns of Beijing’s intensifying aggressiveness in the East Sea (South China Sea). The second which was approved by the communist-controlled parliament and became effective from January 1, 2019, has been criticized by international human rights experts for its role in silencing online government critics.
Members of the group planned to hold the second peaceful demonstration in early September of the same year on the occasion of Vietnam’s Independence Day (September 2) to protest the socio-economic policies of the communist regime. However, they were abducted by security forces in HCM City a few days before the action date. Their fate and whereabouts remained unknown for months as the police held them incommunicado without informing their families, possibly rising to the level of enforced disappearance under international law, and even after the families had been informed of the detention they remained incommunicado for nearly a year.
In mid-April last year, Mr. Dung and Mr. Loc were brutally beaten by police officers while being held in Phan Dang Luu temporary detention center under the authority of HCM City Police Department. Due to the severe injuries, both were treated in a hospital for urgent treatment for ten days.
Despite doing nothing harmful for the country, Hiến Pháp group has been targeted by Vietnam’s communist regime. Two members of the group Pham Minh The and Huynh Truong Ca were convicted of “abusing democratic freedom” and “anti-state propaganda” with respective imprisonment of two years and five and half years in 2018-2019. Mr. The was released on July 10 last year, three months before his imprisonment term was set to end.
Three other members of the group fled to Thailand to seek political asylum to avoid being punished by the Vietnamese regime.
Ms. Le Thi Binh became the latest activist being arrested last year, got detained on December 22 and charged with “abusing democratic freedom.” Binh is also a member of the Hiến Pháp group.
All of them are listed as prisoners of conscience by Defend the Defenders. According to the Hanoi-based human rights group, Vietnam’s communist regime is holding at least 258 prisoners of conscience.
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