(New York) – Vietnam should drop charges against human rights defender Hoang Duc Binh and another defendant, Nguyen Nam Phong, and immediately release them, Human Rights Watch said today. Criminal trials for the two men are scheduled for January 25, 2018, before the People’s Court in Dien Chau district, Nghe An province.
Both men have been charged under the criminal code for taking part in protests and advocacy in relation to the massive marine disaster caused by the Taiwanese steel company Formosa along the central coast of Vietnam in April 2016.
“The Vietnamese government is again using its abusive penal code to punish people for exercising their rights to protest and free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “All this trial will prove is what we already know – that the leaders of Vietnam don’t respect their own people’s rights.”
Hoang Duc Binh, 34, is vice president of Viet Labor Movement (Phong trao Lao dong Viet), an independent organization founded in 2008 to promote workers’ rights. In December 2015, the police detained him briefly for distributing leaflets that advocated allowing the formation of independent labor unions. The leaflets cited then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s promise that Vietnamese workers would be able to form and join independent unions under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership economic agreement. Hoang Duc Binh told Nguoi Viet newspaper that he was beaten in detention. Fellow activists who went to the police station to demand his release were also assaulted.
Hoang Duc Binh has repeatedly and publicly voiced support for political prisoners and detainees. He has also participated in several of the Formosa protests and helped organize groups advocating compensation for fishermen who lost their livelihood in relation to the 2016 toxic spill. Under article 258 of the penal code, he is charged with “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate interest and rights of organization and citizen.” He and Nguyen Nam Phong were also charged with “resisting persons on public duty” under article 257.
“The sad irony here is that Vietnam is charging a human rights defender with abusing freedom, democracy, and rights, when the truth is that the people of Vietnam have no freedom, democracy, or rights,” Adams said.
Bao Nghe An, the news organ for the Communist Party branch of Nghe An province, accused Hoang Duc Binh of “often posting and sharing on his personal Facebook account information and materials that propagandize against the regime and advocate for pluralism and multi-parties. Taking advantage of the environmental incident in the central coast, as the vice president of ‘Viet Labor Movement,’ Hoang Duc Binh had pushed for and formed a ‘Union for Fishermen in the Central Region’ [Hiep hoi ngu dan mien Trung], with the intention to build a peripheral organization, to gather forces and incite Catholic people and fishermen from the Central region to participate in his organization; searching for a ‘nuclear factor’ to incite protests and disrupt security and order.”
On May 15, 2017, Hoang Duc Binh was riding as a passenger in the car of Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, another human rights defender, when they were stopped by traffic police. Father Thuc wrote in a statement published on the Saigon Broadcasting Television Network website that a group of men in civilian clothes and police in uniform “suddenly appeared, jerked the door open, and forcefully dragged Hoang Duc Binh out of the car and took him away,” without any arrest warrant. That evening, the Nghe An television network broadcast the news of Hoang Duc Binh’s arrest. On the arrest warrant shown on TV, he had written: “I do not agree [with the charges] because the Nghe An police have beaten me and arrested me illegally.”
Nguyen Nam Phong, 37, worked as a driver for Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc. He was arrested by Nghe An province police in November based on an incident on February 14 when hundreds of Catholics from Song Ngoc parish had traveled to the People’s Court of Ky Anh district in Ha Tinh province to file petitions against Formosa. The event was dispersed by the local government, and a number of people were reportedly arrested or assaulted.
While protesters were being dispersed, Nguyen Nam Phong was driving several other Catholics, including Hoang Duc Binh, when men in civilian clothes and uniformed police surrounded the car and demanded that he unlock the doors. Father Thuc later wrote in a published request to serve as a witness of the incident that he told Nguyen Nam Phong on the phone to not unlock the car’s doors, fearing for the safety of those inside, which Nguyen Nam Phong followed. The police eventually towed the car away with the passengers inside.
More than 100 activists are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for expressing critical views of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups not approved by the authorities, or joining civil or political organizations that the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam deems threatening to its monopoly on power. Vietnam should unconditionally release them and repeal all laws that criminalize peaceful expression.
“There is no sign that Vietnam is slowing down its intensive crackdown on rights activists in the last 14 months,” Adams said. “International donors and trade partners should speak out forcefully on these abuses.”