(New York) – Vietnam should drop all charges against the pro-democracy activist Nguyen Viet Dung and release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. The police arrested him in September 2017 and charged him with conducting propaganda against the state. The People’s Court of Nghe An province is scheduled to hear his case on March 28, 2018.
“Vietnam is wasting its time using the discredited charge of ‘propaganda against the state’ to silence dissenters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Neither Nguyen Viet Dung nor others calling for reform have shown any intention of giving in to this kind of heavy-handed pressure. All Vietnam is doing is calling attention to its ridiculous intolerance of dissent.”
Nguyen Viet Dung, 32, also known as Dung Phi Ho, has a long history of social protest. As a high school student, he had a moment of celebrity, winning a prestigious television quiz show called Road to Mount Olympia and gaining admission to the Hanoi University of Science and Technology with outstanding test scores. But he was expelled after two years for his preoccupation with protests. Nguyen Viet Dung was again in the public eye in April 2015 after an arrest for participating in a peaceful pro-environment protest in Hanoi and charged with disrupting public order under article 245 of the penal code. In 2015, he also reportedly founded a political party called the Vietnam Republican Party to campaign for democracy in Vietnam.
In December 2015 he was put on trial at the People’s Court of Hoan Kiem district (Hanoi). During the trial, his lawyers reportedly asked the court to summon witnesses and produce the “victims” of his alleged crime. The court responded by expelling one of the defense lawyers. His other lawyers walked out in protest. Nguyen Viet Dung was sentenced to 15 months in prison, which a higher court reduced to 12 months in March 2016. He later told a freelance reporter that the police beat him and kicked him in the face and ribs when they arrested him.
After his release in April 2016, Nguyen Viet Dung immediately resumed his political and human rights activities with the motto, “No matter what happens, the final result must be Liberty n’ Separation of Powers.” He participated in multiple protests against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam. He voiced support for rights campaigners such as prominent activist Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha. He also participated in humanitarian activities, such as helping flood victims in Ha Tinh and Quang Binh provinces in October 2016.
In May 2016, when he was visiting fellow activists in Ho Chi Minh City, a group of men in civilian clothes assaulted him and took him to a police station. The police detained him and interrogated him for two days, then escorted him to the airport and sent him back to Vinh. There three men who did not identify themselves abducted him, pushed him into a car, and, as Nguyen Viet Dung later related, beat him brutally.
“They punched me on my head and my arms, which bruised from the beating. They did not explain or say anything. They simply beat me continuously in the car. Not only using their fists, they took off their shoes and used the tips of the shoes to whip me.”
He told a fellow activist that the men held him for a night at a hotel in Nghe An province, where they continued to beat him and forced him to write an incriminating statement, then released him.
In March 2017, police detained several activists for participating in a commemoration of Vietnamese soldiers who died during the Johnson South Reef Skirmish between Vietnam and China in 1988. Nguyen Viet Dung and his friend Do Thanh Van went to the police station in Bach Khoa ward to demand the release of their fellow activists. Men in civilian clothes assaulted them. Do Thanh Van told a reporter at Radio Free Asia:
“Two men rushed in and kicked Dung and he fell down. Afterward, four or five men were ready to attack us. Two men beat Dung. Two men beat me. They used a plastic chair to hit my head. They probably would have continued to beat me, but the hit was hard, and I bled immediately. Blood fell down on my face and my shirt, covering my eyes. Probably because I am a woman, and also because I bled too much, they stopped beating me. They turned to beat Dung.”
Nguyen Viet Dung had been conducting interviews “about the current state of over-charging at schools and the thoughts and wishes of students and their parents in the area where he lived” shortly before the September 2017 arrest, a fellow activist said.
“It is heartbreaking to see the authorities persecute a non-violent activist again and again just because he won’t toe the party line,” Adams said. “Vietnam’s international trade partners and donors should call out the government’s thuggish and shameless behavior.”