(New York) – On the eve of his marriage, Vietnamese police temporarily detained lawyer and former political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen, Human Rights Watch said today. The police also briefly detained his fiancée, Bui Thi Kim Phuong, and several visitors to their home. Although Nguyen Bac Truyen reported being questioned about supposed economic transgressions, the action was more likely motivated by his recent activism on behalf of other political prisoners.
“This looks like a shameful and personalized act of retaliation against human rights defenders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Donors and other international actors who want to see reforms in Vietnamshould publicly call for an immediate end to such blatantly abusive security force behavior.”
According to interviews and materials posted on nongovernment online sites by Nguyen Bac Truyen and others at the scene, on February 9, 2014, police and plainclothes security officers surrounded their house in Dong Thap province, and, after his Internet connection was cut, entered the premises, ransacked part of the house, and took him away for questioning. His fiancé said she was also detained for several hours. In an interview with Voice of America, Nguyen Bac Truyen described being blindfolded, handcuffed, and transported on the afternoon of February 9 to a police station where he was interrogated about supposed financial irregularities at a company he once owned, before being released on the morning of February 10 and sent to his fiancée’s parents’ home in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
In early February 2104, Nguyen Bac Truyen renewed his public criticisms of the government, in particular condemning its continued imprisonment of the elderly and frail political prisoner Nguyen Huu Cau, who has been held since 1982, dashing hopes he might be released as a humanitarian gesture. This may have been among the triggers for the police operation.
“The Vietnamese authorities have a track record of using spurious allegations of economic crimes as a pretext for harassing and even prosecuting human rights activists and bloggers,” Adams said.
A lawyer, writer (under the pen-name Minh Chinh), and businessman, Nguyen Bac Truyen was first arrested in August 2006 after he made many contributions to overseas news websites describing repression, injustice, and human rights violations committed by the Vietnamese government. He was also an activist for the fledgling People’s Democratic Party, which challenged the monopoly of political power by the ruling Vietnam Communist Party, and a member Bloc 8406, a coalition of activists and intellectuals who signed an April 2006 manifesto calling for multi-party democracy.
He was prosecuted in 2007 under article 88 of the Vietnamese penal code for conducting propaganda against the state, a provision routinely used to punish people for peaceful expression of critical views, a freedom guaranteed by international human rights law and Vietnam’s constitution. The particulars of the charges were that he had distributed materials advocating multi-party democracy and leaflets critical of the government; communicated online with government critics outside Vietnam; and taken part in setting up an opposition party. In a May 2007 trial which lasted four hours, he was sentenced to four years in prison to be followed by two years or probation. The judge characterized his activities “dangerous for society” and declared they had weakened government authority.
In August 2007, the Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) City Supreme People’s Court reduced his sentence to three and a half years plus probation. After being released in May 2010, Nguyen Bac Truyen faced constant government harassment. He nevertheless remained an outspoken member of the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Fellowship Association, which provides support to prisoners and their families. He continued writing, focusing on describing the plight of his still-detained fellow political prisoners and the difficulties and discrimination that former political prisoners face. In August 2012 he joined other former political prisoners in visiting the home of detained blogger Ta Phong Tan, to attend the funeral of her mother who committed suicide by self-immolation to protest her daughter’s incarceration. In August 2013 he publicly alleged that the police surrounded his home after he met with a delegation of the Foreign Affairs Committee of US House of Representatives and officials from the US Embassy in Vietnam to discuss the human rights situation in the country.
On February 11, 2014, according to Vietnamese bloggers’ reports, the police again detained Nguyen Bac Truyen’s fiancé, Bui Thi Kim Phuong, and also arrested as many as 21 other people whose detention seemed to arise from their attempt to visit Nguyen Bac Truyen’s Dong Thap province home. As of 13 February, three of those arrested were said to be still in custody, including Bui Thi Kim Phuong.
“Unless the authorities suddenly produce credible evidence of a criminal act by Nguyen Bac Truyen, their actions must be seen as a continuation of the unjustified targeting of human rights defenders for exercising their fundamental human rights,” Adams said.