Update: On November 18, 2022, a court in Thanh Hoa province sentenced Bui Van Thuan to eight years in prison and five years of probation after his release.
(Bangkok) – The Vietnamese authorities should immediately release the outspoken commentator Bui Van Thuan and drop the politically motivated charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. The People’s Court of Thanh Hoa province has scheduled his criminal trial for November 17, 2022.
The police arrested Bui Van Thuan in August 2021 for posting commentary on Facebook critical of the Vietnamese government. The authorities charged him under penal code article 117(1) with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison.
“The Vietnamese government’s baseless prosecution of Bui Van Thuan for Facebook posts demonstrates the extent of its disregard for free expression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Trade partners and foreign governments should recognize that the authorities’ charges against a peaceful critic using Facebook threatens more than local activists.”
Bui Van Thuan, 41, is a member of the Muong ethnic group in Hoa Binh province. His political interest began when he was a student at the Hanoi National University of Education in the late 2000s. After graduating, he taught at private schools in Hanoi.
While working as a teacher, Bui Van Thuan participated in protests, including those against China as well as the environmental disaster caused by the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel dumping of toxic waste at sea in 2016. Bui Van Thuan voiced support for fellow activists and political prisoners, including Nguyen Trung Ton, Trinh Ba Tu, and Can Thi Theu. He publicly boycotted the national elections in 2016 and 2021.
After his arrest, Cong an Nhan dan, the national police newspaper, alleged that he “frequently published and shared articles and images with content to propagandize and distort the guidelines and policies of the Communist Party, the State’s laws, [and] smear the honor, reputation and images of [the late] President Ho Chi Minh and comrade leaders of the Party and the State.”
On his Facebook page, Bui Van Thuan regularly criticized the government about various political issues, including official pressure by authorities to compel people to vote in national elections. He also frequently criticized the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In one post, entitled “Doing the math for the Communist Party,” on August 21, 2021, he calculated the population in Ho Chi Minh City and their essential needs, and concluded the government’s plan to send soldiers to Ho Chi Minh City to shop for people during lockdown was simply not feasible. While the plan was cut short, the authorities evidently noticed Bui Van Thuan’s statement, and arrested him nine days later.
The police have repeatedly harassed Bui Van Thuan and his family. Bui Van Thuan reported that, in late 2016, police pressured his landlord to evict him and his family. With help of fellow activist Le Trong Hung, who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for promoting rights enshrined in the Constitution, the family was able to find a new residence.
However, in August 2017, the police pressured that landlord to evict them. They found another rental property, but the landlord evicted them less than a day after they moved in. Facing constant harassment, Bui Van Thuan quit teaching in Hanoi and moved to Thanh Hoa province, where he made his living by selling food on Facebook.
In the indictment against him, the August 21 post is among those listed as violating article 117 of the penal code. The indictment alleges that the post about the Covid-19 plan is “based on personal interpretation, lacking concrete evidence and affects the work of preventing and fighting against Covid 19 pandemic carried out by the Party and the State.”
On August 16, 2021, Bui Van Thuan also criticized the government’s call for financial donations from people to help it fight the pandemic. He wrote, “The Communist Party of Vietnam and its tentacle associations and organizations is a giant nest of parasites. They live parasitically from the sweat and work of the people, and they have absolutely no effect except for pulling the country back away from development and civilization.”
In the indictment, the authorities alleged that the post was criminal because it makes a “baseless argument that insults the reputation and leading role of the Communist Party of Vietnam and organizations, sowing doubts among the people.”
“Bui Van Thuan’s harsh criticism of the Vietnamese government should not constitute a crime,” Robertson said. “The Vietnamese government, despite controlling all radio, television, and print media in the country and regularly pumping out official propaganda, still feels threatened by independent minds like Bui Van Thuan.”