(New York) – The Vietnamese government should immediately drop all charges and release rights activists Vu Quang Thuan, Nguyen Van Dien, and Tran Hoang Phuc, Human Rights Watch said today. The first two were arrested in March and the latter in June 2017 for publishing material on the internet critical of the government, and each was charged with conducting propaganda against the state.
The People’s Court of Hanoi is scheduled to hear their case on January 31, 2018.
“Tran Hoang Phuc, Vu Quang Thuan, and Nguyen Van Dien are among a growing group of bloggers and activists who use the internet to advance human rights and democracy in Vietnam,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Arrest and imprisonment of dissenting voices will not stop the increasing number of Vietnamese from speaking up.”
Tran Hoang Phuc, 23, is a student from the Law University in Ho Chi Minh City and a member of the Youth Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). He began participating in social activities in recent years, including by helping flood victims in central Vietnam and participating in pro-human rights activities organized by the Redemptorist Church in Ho Chi Minh City. In May 2016, he publicly boycotted the national election in protest of its pre-determined outcome in a one-party state.
Also in May 2016, Tran was invited to a meeting of former US President Barack Obama with members of YSEALI during his visit to Vietnam. Tran brought documents related to the environmental disaster in April 2016 off the central coast of Vietnam caused by Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company. As he was waiting in line to enter the meeting room, public security officers arrived and took him to a police station for interrogation. According to Tran, the police questioned him about his communications with the United States consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
In October 2016, Tran participated in a meeting in Vung Tau called “Youth and Civil Society,” organized by rights activists. Within minutes, the police broke in, dispersed the meeting, and detained several activists for about 10 hours. Tran reported that he was beaten and his cellphone confiscated.
In April 2017, Tran and fellow activist Huynh Thanh Phat were abducted in Ba Don, Quang Binh province, by a group of men in civilian clothes wearing surgical masks. The anonymous men used shirts to cover the activists’ faces, pushed them into a small van, and drove them away. During the ride, the men continuously beat the two activists. Tran wrote on his Facebook page that the men slapped and punched him. The two were taken to a deserted area in the forest where, according to Tran, the men “used bamboo sticks and belts to whip them.” The men took their wallets and cellphones and abandoned them.
On June 29, 2017, the police arrested Tran in Hanoi for storing and posting documents they said “propagandize against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” and charged him under article 88 of the penal code. Shortly after his arrest, a group called “Vietnamese Students for Human Rights Association” announced its formation. According to the group, Tran is a founding member. The goal of the association is to promote reforms in universities and establish academic freedom in Vietnam.
Vu Quang Thuan, also known as Vo Phu Dong, 51, began his pro-democracy activism in 2007 when he and fellow activist Le Thang Long founded “Vietnam Restoration Movement” (Phong trao Chan hung nuoc Viet), which advocated for a multi-party and democratic political system. According to Le, the goal of the movement is to advance “Corporate reform, non-violence, dialogue, and listening for the mutual and long-term interest of the country.” Le was arrested in June 2009 and charged with subversion. He served three years in prison. Vu fled to Malaysia where he applied for asylum. While waiting for his case to be heard, Vu recruited members for his movement and advocated for the rights of Vietnamese laborers working in Malaysia. He told a reporter at Radio Free Asia that he read almost 1,000 labor contracts in which [Vietnamese workers] are not allowed to “join any party or organization, participate in any protest, love and marry any foreigner.” According to the Vietnamese police newspaper An ninh The gioi (World Security), in February 2010, Vu helped organize three public protests in Kuala Lumpur outside the Vietnamese embassy in Malaysia and the office of the Malaysian prime minister to urge Vietnam to release political detainees and respect freedom of speech, press, media, and association.
In April 2010, Vu attempted to self-immolate at the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur to protest Malaysia’s deportation of two members of the Vietnam Restoration Movement. He was arrested by Malaysian police and deported to Vietnam in February 2011. Vu claimed that he had been issued with a document identifying him as a refugee but this was confiscated by the Malaysian police. Upon arrival at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City, he was arrested and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under penal code section 88. He was released in 2015, after which he immediately went back to activism by using Facebook and YouTube to advocate for democracy and a multiparty political system.
Little is known about Nguyen Van Dien, also known as “Dien who loves the country,” 34. According to Radio Free Asia, he worked with Vu to promote rights for Vietnamese workers in Malaysia. He was arrested in 2010 in Kuala Lumpur and deported to Vietnam in 2011. Nguyen helped film Vu’s livestreams on Facebook on many different topics, including instructions about how to carry out a public protest in accordance with the law. Both Vu and Nguyen participated in pro-environment protests and went to the court to show solidarity with political prisoner Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as Anh Ba Sam, and fellow activist Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy during their trial in 2016.
The police arrested Vu and Nguyen in Hanoi on March 2, 2017, for “making many clips with bad content and distributing them on the Internet” and charged them with conducting propaganda against the state.
“The Vietnamese government controls all domestic newspapers and media, which promote its agenda and function as a propaganda machine,” said Adams. “Why is it so afraid of critics who have much smaller platforms on the internet and merely call for the people of Vietnam to be able to choose their leaders in free and fair elections?”