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Tran Van Bang holds a sign that says “Freedom for Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience” to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 2018. © 2018 Tran Van Bang

Update: On May 12, 2023, a court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Tran Van Bang to eight years in prison and three years of probation after his release.

(Bangkok) – The Vietnamese authorities should immediately drop all charges and release rights activist Tran Van Bang, Human Rights Watch said today. Ho Chi Minh City police arrested Tran Van Bang on March 1, 2022, and charged him for criticizing the government under article 117 of the penal code. A court is scheduled to hear his case on May 12, 2023. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison.

“The Vietnamese government has repeatedly rolled out article 117 of the penal code to silence any citizen who dares to use the internet to criticize the government or voice support for human rights and democracy,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately release Tran Van Bang and abolish this draconian legal provision.”

The Vietnamese government amended its penal code in 2015 and revised the rights-abusing article 88, which outlawed “conducting propaganda against the state,” to increase prison sentences. Now known as article 117, it prohibits “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The revised law went into effect in January 2018.

Since 2018, the courts have convicted at least 60 bloggers and activists under article 117 and sentenced them to between 4 and 15 years in prison. During the same period, at least 13 other rights campaigners were convicted under old article 88, which was the law at the time of their alleged violation, and sentenced them to between 4 and 12 years in prison.

Tran Van Bang (also known as Tran Bang), 62, served in the army in the early 1980s, and became an irrigation engineer after he retired from the army in the mid-1980s. In the last decade, he has been participating in anti-China protests. In November 2015, during a protest against a visit to Vietnam by Chinese President Xi Jinping, security agents assaulted and injured Tran Van Bang. He also participated in pro-environment and human rights protests and openly opposed Vietnam’s repressive 2018 cybersecurity law.

Tran Van Bang publicly voiced support for numerous political prisoners and detainees, including Nguyen Thuy HanhPham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Tu, Trinh Ba Phuong, Le Dinh Luong, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, Pham Chi Dung, Le Huu Minh Tuan, Nguyen Van Hoa, Pham Chi Thanh, and Nguyen Nang Tinh.

He went on a one-day hunger strike in December 2020 to support the prominent blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence for campaigning for democracy. He helped raise money to help fellow activists in need, such as Dinh Van Hai and Vu Tien Chi when security agents assaulted the two in June 2018 for visiting the former political prisoner Do Thi Minh Hanh in Lam Dong.

In recent years, security agents frequently placed Tran Van Bang under house arrest so that he could not participate in human rights-related or politically sensitive events.

Several months before Tran Van Bang’s arrest, his health deteriorated so he stopped all activities to concentrate on improving his health. However, the police still summoned him for regular interrogations. Sensing that he would be arrested, he gave an interview to Radio Free Asia in mid-February 2022 and said that the police questioned him about “issues related to propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam State.” But he said that “they snatch anyone they like to snatch in order to claim achievement. The accusation is just an excuse [for arrest].”

“Vietnam’s leaders show their weakness, not their strength, by arresting, detaining, and prosecuting anyone who expresses critical views about the government on the internet,” Robertson said. “Tran Van Bang should not face punishment simply for exercising the basic right to freedom of expression.”

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