(New York) – Vietnamese authorities should void the conviction of blogger Ho Thi Bich Khuong, 44, and immediately free her. The People’s Court of Nghe An is scheduled on May 30, 2012, to hear her appeal against her five-year sentence for violating article 88 of the penal code, which forbids “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
She was convicted on December 29, 2011, for giving interviews to the foreign media that authorities alleged were critical of the government, and for producing, storing, and distributing documents that were considered to oppose the state.
“For the third time in seven years, Ho Thi Bich Khuong is in prison for exercising the right to voice her views,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The systematic application of article 88 to arbitrarily punish bloggers and critics shows that Vietnam’s disrespect for freedom of expression continues unabated.”
In May 2005, the authorities arrested Ho Thi Bich Khuong in Hanoi, where she filed complaints at the central government grievance office against the confiscation of her shops by local authorities. The People’s Court of Ba Dinh district in Hanoi sentenced her to six months in prison for “disrupting public order” under article 245 of the penal code. In April 2007, police arrested her in an Internet café in Nghe An province for reading information on foreign-based websites. In April 2008, a year after detaining Ho Thi Bich Khuong, the People’s Court of Nghe An sentenced her to two years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” under article 258.
Ho Thi Bich Khuong is a prominent member of a rapidly expanding group of rights petitioners who use the Internet to defend their rights or those of other aggrieved persons. She publishes detailed accounts of the repression and harassment she and her family have faced, and writes about the sufferings of other poor rural farmers and of human rights defenders. She won the prestigious Hellman-Hammett award in 2011.
On March 28, 2012, the People’s Court of Nghe An scheduled the appeal hearing for Ho Thi Bich Khuong. She successfully appealed for a postponement of the hearing, telling the court that she was held in solitary confinement, and was not even informed about the appeal trial. She also told her family that she was beaten four times by another prisoner while prison guards looked away.
This is not the first time Ho Thi Bich Khuong has been tortured in detention. Her prison memoir was published in serialized form in July and August 2009 by Nguoi Viet Online, an influential Vietnamese-American newspaper in Orange County, California. In the memoir, she gave a meticulous description of being beaten by investigation police during pre-trial detention and the horrific conditions in the prison more generally.
“Police continue to systematically torture people in pre-trial detention,” said Robertson. “The government should conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of Ho Thi Bich Khuong’s serious allegations and hold to account any officials responsible for beating her or tolerating abuse by other prisoners.”
Following her release in April 2009, Ho Thi Bich Khuong continued to denounce the authorities for injustices she feels they have perpetrated against her and her family. She participated in at least two spontaneous protests of landless and rights petitioners in Nghe An in 2010, and wrote reports on the Internet about various rights violations allegedly inflicted by local authorities upon local people.
In November 2010, Ho Thi Bich Khuong went to visit the families of victims killed by police in May 2010 during a protest over land rights at Nghi Son Petrochemical Refinery in Thanh Hoa province, and questioned the authorities’ silence on the case. In December that year, she described violence by local authorities against independent Mennonite Protestant groups in Thanh Hoa during their attempts to gather and celebrate Christmas. Three weeks later, Ho Thi Bich Khuong was arrested.
“Vietnam should be grateful that people like Ho Thi Bich Khuong call attention to local abuses,” said Robertson. “They give the government an opportunity to investigate and show commitment to the rule of law. When the government instead clamps down on the media and locks up independent bloggers, it simply encourages further corruption and abuse of power.”