Update: On December 31, a court in Hanoi sentenced Le Trong Hung to five years in prison and five years of probation after his release.
(New York) – The Vietnamese authorities should immediately drop all charges and release the independent political candidate Le Trong Hung, Human Rights Watch said today. Le Trong Hung campaigned as an independent candidate for the 15th National Assembly election in May 2021.
Police arrested Le Trong Hung on March 27, two months before the election, and charged him with conducting propaganda against the state in violation of article 117(1) of the Vietnamese Penal Code. A Hanoi court is scheduled to hear his case on December 31. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison.
“Imprisoning activists like Le Trong Hung who dare to run as independent candidates for parliament shows what a charade Vietnam’s elections are,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release him instead of prosecuting him for challenging the status quo.”
Le Trong Hung (also known as Hung Gan), 41, is a former government middle school teacher. In 2015, after filing a petition without success demanding reform to benefit students in a school in Hanoi, he quit teaching. In 2017 he began reporting as a citizen journalist on Facebook and YouTube, commenting on social issues and advising people petitioning the government.
He participated in anti-China protests and protests for environmental conservation. He used social media to share news about protests in Myanmar and the struggles of Vietnamese activists such as Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu, and Pham Doan Trang. He also promoted education and knowledge about Vietnam’s Constitution, and offered people free copies of the constitution.
In February Le Trong Hung announced his plan to run as an independent candidate for the National Assembly election. He published his proposed policies, promising that, if elected, he would promote education about constitutional rights and campaign for laws to allow peaceful protests, freedom of association, and a citizens’ watchdog role over government. His policy agenda also included a call to amend the constitution and repeal articles granting supremacy to the Communist Party of Vietnam (article 4), allowing only a single trade union (article 10), and confirming state ownership of all land, water, and natural resources (article 53), among others.
On February 23 Le Trong Hung challenged Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to a debate on television, since Nguyen Phu Trong was running as the parliamentary candidate in the residential area where Le Trong Hung lives. One week later, police began to summon him repeatedly for questioning and placed him under intrusive surveillance.
Following his arrest on March 27, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s website ran an article accusing Le Trong Hung of “using social media to publish writing or livestream the distortion and disparagement of the government.” It chides him for “commenting in a distorted way the guidelines, paths and policies of the Party and the State.” The party’s post claimed that Le Trong Hung “continuously makes speeches that defame the government, oppose the State and dismiss the leadership role of the Party.” The article dismisses as “reactionary” comments that Le Trong Hung was arrested because he ran as an independent candidate and said that the authorities arrested him because he had been violating the law for a long time.
The authorities have also harassed Le Trong Hung’s family. They summoned for questioning his wife, Do Le Na, who is blind and taking care of their two young children. Officials also pressured her to vote in May in the parliamentary election, but she declined. Strangers in civilian clothes allegedly followed his 10-year-old son as he went home from school.
Police arrested two other people who tried to run as independent candidates for parliament in 2021; Le Van Dung (also known as Le Dung Vova) in Hanoi and Tran Quoc Khanh in Ninh Binh. Both were charged under article 117 of the Penal Code. In October a Ninh Binh provincial court convicted and sentenced Tran Quoc Khanh to six and a half years in prison.
In April police in Binh Thuan province detained a poet, Nguyen Quoc Huy (known as Dong Chuong Tu), a member of the Cham ethnic minority, and interrogated him for three days about his self-nomination for the election. They confiscated his passport before releasing him.
“Vietnam’s government brutally punishes anyone who dares to challenge them, and Le Trong Hung is yet another victim of that repression,” Robertson said. “So long as the country’s leaders don’t allow free and fair elections, the Communist Party of Vietnam will do as it pleases at the population’s expense.”