Update: On May 5, 2021, a court in Vietnam sentenced Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu to eight years in prison and three years of probation after their release.
(New York) – The Vietnamese authorities should immediately release the democracy campaigner Can Thi Theu and her two sons and drop all charges against them, Human Rights Watch said today. Can Thi Theu and her younger son, Trinh Ba Tu, face trial on May 5, 2021. All three have been detained since June 2020.
Over the past decade, Can Thi Theu, along with her husband, Trinh Ba Khiem, and two sons, have engaged in numerous protests and campaigns over human rights, land rights, and environmental protection, among other issues. The authorities have previously jailed her and her husband, and have repeatedly harassed and intimidated them and their family.
“Can Thi Theu and her family have been outspoken defenders of human rights in Vietnam,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “The Vietnamese government should be listening to people like this brave family, not throwing them in jail.”
In separate arrests on June 24, 2020, police in Hoa Binh province and Hanoi detained Can Thi Theu, 59, and her sons Trinh Ba Tu, 32, and Trinh Ba Phuong, 36. The three were charged with conducting propaganda against the state under article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code. The authorities the same day also arrested Nguyen Thi Tam, 49, a land rights activist who campaigned with the family, and charged her under the same provision. She remains in police custody awaiting trial.
For nine months, officials blocked legal counsel from meeting with Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu, in violation of international human rights standards. Their family members were not allowed to see them. No trial date has been set for the older brother, Trinh Ba Phuong, who continues to be held without access to legal counsel or family.
Vietnam has arrested hundreds of dissidents in recent years and 137 political prisoners are currently serving criminal sentences related to their human rights advocacy or criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch research found. During the first four months of 2021, the authorities arrested an additional 10 dissidents, including the prominent rights campaigner Nguyen Thuy Hanh. Courts have convicted at least 12 dissidents during this period and have imposed sentences ranging from 2 to 15 years.
Can Thi Theu emerged in the mid-2000s as a prominent land rights activist who fought against government confiscation of land. In April 2014, the police arrested her for filming government land confiscation and later sentenced her to 15 months in prison for “resisting against those who are on public duties,” under article 257 of the penal code. Her husband was also arrested on the same day and served 14 months in prison on similar charges.
After completing her prison term, Can Thi Theu immediately resumed her human rights advocacy work. She participated in environmental protests, and publicly voiced support for other human rights activists and political prisoners. In June 2016, police arrested her again for participating in a protest against land confiscation, and three months later, she was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
After her release in February 2018, Can Thi Theu immediately restarted her human rights advocacy. She made an impassioned speech to supporters upon her return home, stating that she had only “left a small prison and returned to the big prison.” She condemned the government’s abuses while vowing to continue to fight for human rights and said that other governments and international human rights organizations should voice support for Vietnamese human rights defenders.
Can Thi Theu’s son, Trinh Ba Tu, became an activist after witnessing retaliation against his parents. In June 2015, when he and other activists were welcoming his father as he was released from prison in Nghe An province, a group of men – most likely plainclothes police – attacked them, and Trinh Ba Tu suffered serious injuries.
Trinh Ba Tu reportedly carried out a 20-day hunger strike in August, protesting “mistreatment against him and other prisoners.”
Prior to their arrests, the three family members were instrumental in amplifying the voices of the community of Dong Tam commune, where a police raid in January 2020 resulted in the deaths of an 84-year-old farmer, Le Dinh Kinh, and three policemen. Can Thi Theu and her sons were among the authors of the “Dong Tam Report,” which shed light on the violent land clash.
In October, the police arrested another author of the Dong Tam Report, the prominent dissident Pham Doan Trang. The only co-author of this report who has not been arrested lives outside of Vietnam. The legal case against Can Thi Theu and her sons appears to be based in part on their association with Pham Doan Trang. Police told state media that after their arrests, during a search of their house, police seized a number of books and documents, listing several titles of works that were written by Pham Doan Trang.
Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu appear to have anticipated their arrests. On the day they were arrested, pre-recorded videos were posted on Facebook in which they expressed concern of being tortured and killed by police, and asked supporters and family members to publicly display their bodies if they were killed, to expose the crimes against them.
Since the arrest of Can Thi Theu and her sons, the police have continued to harass and threaten other members of her family, including her husband, her daughter-in-law, Do Thi Thu, and her son-in-law, Pham Xuan Truong.
“Even in the face of persecution and brutality, Can Thi Theu and her family have shown immense courage pursuing human rights advocacy, while the Vietnamese government has lacked the courage to even listen to its citizens’ complaints,” Sifton said. “Vietnam’s international donors and trade partners need to speak out in support of these brave dissidents and condemn Vietnam’s dismal record of repression.”