Nguyen Quang Lap during an anti-China protest in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in May 2014. 

(New York) – Vietnam should drop all charges and immediately release bloggers Nguyen Quang Lap and Hong Le Tho, who were arrested for operating independent blogs, Human Rights Watch said today.

Nguyen Quang Lap was arrested on December 6, 2014, and Hong Le Tho was arrested on November 29 in Ho Chi Minh City. Both were charged with “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state” under article 258 of the penal code. In 2014, Vietnam has used article 258 to convict at least 10 rights advocates and arrest 4 bloggers.

“There can hardly be a more insidious legal provision than one that criminalizes ‘abusing freedom and democracy to infringe on the interests of the state,’” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “These charges are even more preposterous from a government that is not democratic and doesn’t respect individual freedom.”

Nguyen Quang Lap (referred to as “Bo Lap” on his well-known Que Choa blog), 58, is a prominent writer, journalist, and blogger. After graduating from the Hanoi Polytechnic University, he served in the army for five years during the early 1980s. Lap began his writing career as a freelance writer and journalist. He served as the deputy editor-in-chief of the popular Cua Viet (the Door of Viet) magazine from 1990-1992. After only seventeen issues, Cua Viet was shut down by the authorities for publishing pro-democracy content.

In the early 1990s, Lap moved to Hanoi where he worked for various literary media including Young Literature & Arts Newspaper and the Kim Dong Children’s Publishing House. He penned a number of widely produced and highly acclaimed plays such as Nhung linh hon song (Living Souls) and Mua ha cay dang (A Painful Summer). His film scripts such as Thung lung hoang vang (Deserted Valley) and Doi cat (Sand Life) won national awards. In addition to his writings for film and stage, he is the author of a published novel and several collections of stories and short pieces of non-fiction. In 2001, Nguyen Quang Lap suffered a motorcycle accident that left him with one leg and one arm paralyzed.

Nguyen Quang Lap started the Que Choa blog in 2007. It quickly emerged as one of the most popular blogs for Vietnamese readers both domestically and overseas. In May 2013, the administrative manager of the domain server that hosts the Que Choa blog requested that he remove a number of “sensitive” and “bad” posts on his blog. He declined and his blog was removed from the server. Lap then moved to a foreign-based host sever. Despite suffering intermittent attacks and firewalls, by June 2014 Que Choa had received more than a hundred million views.

In July 2014, Nguyen Quang Lap’s Facebook account was temporarily suspended and he was forced to open another account. Attempts to silence Nguyen Quang Lap have only made him more outspoken. In a blog entry in June, he wrote, “I have never nor will I ever follow or oppose anyone because this is not the job of a writer. I will always be a small boat person, carrying the boat of TRUTH to the people and nothing else.”

Hong Le Tho (who blogs as Nguoi Lot Gach – which means “bricklayer”), 65, was an anti-war student activist in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970. After 1975, he reportedly worked for the Vietnamese Embassy in Japan for four years before moving back to Vietnam. He started his blog, Nguoi Lot Gach, in 2011. He has mainly used it to repost articles focused on social and political issues in Vietnam. Tho is known among the Vietnamese intelligentsia as an independent researcher of issues related to Vietnam’s territorial claim in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Both he and Nguyen Quang Lap have strongly opposed China’s claims in this dispute.

Nguyen Quang Lap and Hong Le Tho are not the only bloggers who have been arrested and charged with article 258 this year. Other victims of this ongoing crackdown include Nguyen Huu Vinh (known as Anh Ba Sam) and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, both arrested in May 2014. In November, the B14 Detention Center in Hanoi refused to allow defense lawyer Ha Huy Son to meet with his client Nguyen Huu Vinh, and defense lawyer Nguyen Tien Dung to meet his client Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy. In December, the Procuracy office informed Ha Huy Son that the case has been sent back to the police investigation bureau for supplemental investigation.

Vietnam became a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. However, it continues to use vaguely defined articles in the penal code, such as article 258, to silence Vietnamese critics.

“Efforts to silence bloggers make a mockery of Vietnam’s commitments to the United Nations when it stood for election to the Human Rights Council,” Adams said. “The Vietnamese government looks like little more than a bully at home and abroad when it persecutes people who do nothing more than express their opinions.”