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Photo of Le Dinh Luong, December 2015.  © 2015 Private
(New York) - Vietnamese authorities should drop politically motivated charges against a veteran environmental activist and release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. Le Dinh Luong had been arrested in July 2017 and charged with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. The People’s Court of Nghe An province is scheduled to hear his case on July 30, 2018.

“Vietnamese authorities frequently employ fabricated political charges to punish activists for being affiliated with non-communist groups or parties critical of the government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Le Dinh Luong is facing prison for protesting the dumping of toxic waste and other environmental disasters that the government should be doing something about.”

The case has raised many fair trial concerns, Human Rights Watch said. It was not until early July 2018 that the Nghe An procuracy granted permission for Le Dinh Luong to be represented by defense lawyers. On July 17, his daughter-in-law, Nguyen Thi Xoan, told a reporter for Defend the Defenders that the family had not been allowed to meet with him and had been given no information about him since his arrest. If convicted, Le Dinh Luong faces up to life in prison and a possible death penalty.

Le Dinh Luong, 52, is a Catholic activist who has participated in many activities deemed politically unacceptable by the Vietnamese authorities. He signed a petition against bauxite mining in the Central Highlands. He joined public protests Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, the Taiwanese company that dumped toxic waste into the ocean, causing massive fish deaths and an environmental disaster off Vietnam’s central coast in April 2016.

He publicly declared a boycott of the national election in May 2016. He also expressed support for political prisoners such as Nguyen Van Dai, Nguyen Viet Dung, and Ho Duc Hoa. To show solidarity, Le Dinh Luong frequently visited former political prisoners upon their release from prison, as well as the families of people in prison for campaigning for democracy and human rights.

Le Dinh Luong campaigned to revoke laws used to silence dissent such as article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code, which imposes up to seven years in prison for “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.” According to his nephew, prominent rights activist Le Quoc Quan, Le Dinh Luong also campaigned for the rights of farmers to refuse to pay excessive educational and agricultural output fees imposed by local authorities.

In August 2015, Le Dinh Luong and several other activists visited a political activist, Tran Minh Nhat, in Lam Ha district, Lam Dong province. Police released Tran Minh Nhat shortly after he completed a four-year sentence for allegedly being involved in the foreign-based political party Viet Tan. When the visitors were leaving the area, men in civilian clothes brutally attacked them.

Le Dinh Luong described that 2015 attack:

“They snatched my tablet and smashed it against the side of the bus. They hit me repeatedly in my face, punched me in the ribs, and kicked me in the head. They beat me for about five minutes in the bus, then dragged me off the bus and beat me for another 10 minutes. I have many bruises and swollen spots; I am in a lot of pain.”

On July 24, 2017, Le Dinh Luong and a fellow activist, Thai Van Hoa, visited the family of a former political prisoner, Nguyen Van Oai, who had been arrested a second time in January 2017.  Thai Van Hoa said that when they left, a group of men in civilian clothes beat them and forced them into separate vans. Later that day, the police announced that they arrested Le Dinh Luong and charged him with “carry[ing] out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under penal code article 79.

At the time, the police and the army newspapers accused Le Dinh Luong of being a “dangerous reactionary” and a member of the outlawed Viet Tan party.

In August 2017, three weeks after Le Dinh Luong’s arrest, the police rejected the request by Ha Huy Son to serve as Le Dinh Luong’s defense lawyer, claiming that a person suspected of serious national security violations would not be allowed to have a lawyer until the investigation was completed under article 58 (now article 74) of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Many political detainees in Vietnam are held in police custody for months without access to legal counsel or family visits in violation of international human rights law. As of July, Human Rights Watch had documented that at least 18 other people were detained in Vietnam for alleged national security violations, pending investigation, including Luu Van Vinh and Nguyen Van Duc Do.

“Vietnamese police routinely deprive detained rights activists and bloggers of access to lawyers and family members for months, and then only give their lawyers a very short time to prepare the case before trial,” Robertson said. “Fundamental change is needed in Vietnam’s justice system, but for the needed reform there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”

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