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Nguyen Ngoc Anh at an anti-Formosa protest in 2016. The signs he is holding say: Fish Need Clean Water, People Need Transparency.   © 2016 Private

(Bangkok, November 6, 2019) – A Vietnamese court will hear an appeal on November 7, 2019 of a six-year sentence for a Vietnamese environmental activist convicted of criticizing the government on Facebook, Human Rights Watch said today. The prosecution and detention of the activist, Nguyen Ngoc Anh, clearly violated his right to freedom of speech. The authorities should reverse his conviction and immediately release him.

The police arrested Nguyen Ngoc Anh in August 2018 and charged him with “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under article 117 of the country’s penal code. In June 2019, after a summary trial, a court in Ben Tre province sentenced him to six years in prison, followed by five years on probation. A higher court in Ho Chi Minh City is scheduled to hear the appeal.

“Nguyen Ngoc Anh is among a rapidly increasing group of political dissenters locked up for expressing opinions on Facebook,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam’s government seems to think that using the platform for its intended purpose is a crime.”

State media described his sharing of “reactionary” material as intended to “badmouth” the state and party and incite people to protest during the independence holiday on September 2. However, Nguyen Ngoc Anh’s writings were on prototypical issues of concern to social activists in Vietnam: the environmental destruction wrought by the Formosa company’s toxic waste spill in April 2016, the lack of free choice in elections in 2016, and the welfare of political prisoners.

Nguyen Ngoc Anh’s wife, Nguyen Thi Chau, wrote on Facebook that when she visited him in October, he “dragged his feet with a lot of difficulty.” She wrote that he told her that another prisoner, Do Huu Cuong, recently had beaten him until he fainted. Nguyen Ngoc Anh reported the beating to prison guards, but no action was taken.

On October 23, the police in the town of Binh Dai in Ben Tre summoned Nguyen Thi Chau for questioning. They asked her about her relationship with family members of other political prisoners, wearing a T-shirt that dismisses China’s claim to a disputed sea territory, welcoming home a political prisoner, Nguyen Dang Minh Man, and giving an interview to Radio Free Asia.

“First the Vietnamese authorities imprison people to prevent them exercising their free speech rights, then they attempt to silence family members who want to advocate for their freedom,” Sifton said. “Vietnam’s international donors and trade partners should publicly condemn these abuses and voice support for critics and activists.”

The imprisonment of Nguyen Ngoc Anh is part of an ongoing crackdown against critics of the party and government. During the first 10 months of 2019, the Vietnamese authorities convicted at least 20 people and sentenced them to between 6 months and 10 years in prison for criticizing the government, campaigning for religious freedom, advocating basic civil and political rights, or fighting corruption.

The police arrested Nguyen Nang Tinh in May, Pham Van Diep in June, and Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong in September for posting or sharing Facebook posts. In October, the authorities held trials for Nguyen Thi Hue, Nguyen Van Phuoc, and Pham Xuan Hao on similar charges.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged internet companies to raise concerns publicly about persons unjustly imprisoned for online expression and pressure Vietnam to reform its abusive laws on cybersecurity and online expression.

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