(Bangkok, October 17, 2018) – Vietnam should reverse the draconian sentence imposed on a veteran environment and democracy activist, Le Dinh Luong, and release him, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals court is scheduled to hear his case on October 18, 2018, in Nghe An province.

“Le Dinh Luong’s 20-year sentence is one of the harshest in the government’s crackdown on peaceful activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This is an opportunity for the court to right this wrong, distinguish between criticism of the government and actual threats to national security, and defend everyone’s right to free expression.”

The government arrested Le Dinh Luong, 53, in July 2017 and charged him 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 originally scheduled Luong’s trial for July 30, 2018, but postponed the hearing at the last minute. Though the trial was supposed to be open to the public, only Le Dinh Luong’s wife and younger brother were allowed into the courtroom. Foreign diplomats who tried to attend were barred. 

On August 16, the People’s Court convicted him and gave him an extraordinarily long prison sentence of 20 years, to be followed by an additional five years of probation with severe restrictions on his movements. In an unusual move, the court imposed a longer sentence than the 17 years the Nghe An prosecutors office recommended. 

Le Dinh Luong has participated in various activities that the Vietnamese authorities consider politically unacceptable, including religious and environmental protests. He has joined various environmental demonstrations, including against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese company that has dumped toxic waste in the ocean and polluted Vietnam’s central coast, causing massive fish deaths and an environmental disaster. 

Police and army newspapers repeatedly accused Le Dinh Luong of being a “dangerous reactionary” connected to the Viet Tan, a US-based political party. His case has raised many fair trial concerns.

In August 2017, the police rejected a request to have Ha Huy Son serve as Le Dinh Luong’s defense lawyer. The police claimed that a person suspected of serious national security violations would not be allowed to have a lawyer until the investigation was completed under then-article 58 (now article 74) of the Criminal Procedure Code. He was not given permission to be represented by defense lawyers until early July. On July 17, his daughter-in-law, Nguyen Thi Xoan, told a reporter for Defend the Defenders that the family had been given no information about him since his arrest. 

Freedom of expression and the right to be represented by counsel are guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a party. The appeals court should immediately release Luong and other activists who have been wrongly imprisoned and allow them to peacefully express their views. 

The US State Department, the European Union, and various non-governmental organizations have urged the Vietnamese government to ensure that Le Dinh Luong and other human rights defenders obtain a fair trial as guaranteed by Vietnamese and international law. 

“A 20-year prison sentence for peaceful protest is outrageous,” Robertson said. “It should not matter if someone is protesting in favor or against the government’s preferred position. Vietnam’s actions, in this case, will show its real attitude toward the rule of law.”