(New York) – Vietnamese authorities should drop all charges and unconditionally release a prominent land rights activist facing trial for peacefully exercising her rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 20, 2016, a court in Hanoi will begin the trial of Can Thi Theu for “disrupting public order” under article 245 of the penal code after she and others staged peaceful protests against land confiscation.

Can Thi Theu protests against police violence, carrying a picture of her son, Trinh Ba Tu, who was attacked by pro-government thugs in June 2015.

© 2015 Private

“Conflicts between farmers and the government over land confiscation have become a serious problem in Vietnam in the last few years,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should reform its land law and compensation system instead of punishing people who protest the loss of their land.”

On June 10, Hanoi authorities arrested Can Thi Theu, 54, and charged her with “disrupting public order” after leading people from Hanoi’s Duong Noi ward in carrying banners to various government offices to petition against land confiscation. She was also accused of urging people from Duong Noi ward to boycott the national election in May. After being arrested, Can Thi Theu carried out a hunger strike for more than 10 days.

More than a decade ago, in June 2006, the local government decided to confiscate farmland in Duong Noi ward of Ha Dong district and transform the area into an urban zone. Hundreds of families protested the confiscation process and inadequate compensation for those who would lose their livelihoods. The authorities made little effort to engage the local residents or respond to their complaints.  In April 2014, the authorities forcibly confiscated the land and brutally beat many protesters.

Can Thi Theu was arrested at the scene for photographing and filming the forced eviction. She was charged with “resisting against those who are on public duties” under article 257 of the penal code. Her husband, Trinh Ba Khiem, was also arrested and charged with the same crime. In September 2014, both were convicted. Can Thi Theu was sentenced to 15 months in prison and Trinh Ba Khiem to 18 months (later reduced to 14 months). In June 2015, when Trinh Ba Khiem completed his prison sentence, dozens of land rights activists and bloggers went to Prison No. 6 in Nghe An province to welcome him. The group was attacked by men in civilian clothes. Can Thi Theu’s youngest son, Trinh Ba Tu, was part of the group and suffered serious injuries. In July 2015, Can Thi Theu completed her prison sentence in Prison No. 5 in Thanh Hoa.

Since her release, Can Thi Theu has continued to advocate on land and environmental issues. She participated in protests calling for the release of prominent rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha, urging the government to repeal article 88 of the penal code, which criminalizes peaceful criticism. She joined protests against police violence and carried out a hunger strike in support of political prisoner Tran Huynh Duy Thuc.

“When the Communist Party of Vietnam needed farmers’ support, it advocated that ‘farmers must have land’ (‘nguoi cay co ruong’),” said Adams. “But now it puts those who make the same point in prison.”