Update: On July 9, 2021, a court in Vietnam sentenced Pham Chi Thanh to five years six months in prison and five years of probation after his release.
(New York) – The Vietnamese government should immediately release the dissident writer and novelist Pham Chi Thanh and drop all criminal charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today.
Police arrested Thanh, 69, in May 2020 and charged him under article 117 of the penal code, which criminalizes possession or dissemination of “information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” On May 28, 2021, his lawyer was allowed to see Thanh for the first time. His wife, Nguyen Thi Nghiem, later wrote on Facebook that the lawyer told her that her husband had recently suffered an injury during a fall and had headaches and difficulty breathing. His trial in Hanoi is scheduled for July 9.
“Pham Chi Thanh is among a long list of Vietnamese dissidents prosecuted for nothing more than their written words,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “There are no allegations that he has committed a recognizable offense under international human rights law.”
Thanh (also known as Pham Thanh – Ba Dam Xoe) published his first novel, Hau Chi Pheo (About Chi Pheo), in 1991. The novel condemns the land reform in North Vietnam in the 1950s, and portrays local communist leaders as corrupt, immoral, stupid, and cruel.
In 2007, he lost his position as deputy editor of Voice of Vietnam newspaper for writing anti-China articles. In 2014, he self-published his second novel, Co Hon Xa Nghia (Scarecrow Socialism), which portrays socialism and the Vietnamese government in a highly negative light. In 2019, under his pen name, he published a collection of writings criticizing the Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for being too close to China.
In a 2019 interview with Voice of America Vietnamese service, Thanh said, “I had followed the [Communist] Party and State for 41 years. Now, looking back, I found our nation moved backward in every way. What is the cause? The reason is that we do not have democracy. The reason is that the Communist Party maintains a dictatorship! I fight against the communist dictatorship!”
The police have harassed and intimidated Thanh numerous times. Between 2014 and 2016, they summoned him several times and interrogated him about his writing. On December 6, 2015, the police at Noi Bai International Airport prohibited him from leaving Vietnam for Bangkok, stating that his travel ban was “to protect national security and social order and safety.”
In November 2017, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Da Nang, security agents placed him under house arrest for several days. Prior to and during the meeting between the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and former US President Donald Trump in Hanoi on February 27 and 28, 2019, Thanh was placed under house arrest. He posted on the internet photos of men in civilian clothes stationed outside his door, calling them “the phantoms in front of my house, night of February 26, 2019, to celebrate Trump’s arrival in Hanoi.”
In November 2020, six months after his arrest, Radio Free Asia reported that Thanh had been in a mental health facility for six weeks, where his wife was briefly allowed to visit him. The purpose of his admission to the facility remains unclear.
“Pham Chi Thanh has committed no evident crime, appears to be in ill health, and was detained for more than a year without legal counsel,” Sifton said. “The Vietnamese authorities have no plausible justification for jailing him, and never did. He should be released and allowed to return to his home and family.”