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2018 Obama scholar Hoang Thi Minh Hong © Private

UpdateOn September 28, 2023, a court in Ho Chi Minh City convicted and sentenced Hoang Thi Minh Hong to three years in prison.

(Bangkok) - The Vietnamese government should immediately drop all charges against the prominent environmental activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong and unconditionally release her, Human Rights Watch said today. A court in Ho Chi Minh City is scheduled to hear her criminal case on September 28, 2023.

On May 30, Ho Chi Minh City police arrested Hoang Thi Minh Hong on tax evasion charges, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison plus fines. In October 2022, she had abruptly shut down without explanation CHANGE VN, the influential nongovernmental organization she had founded a decade earlier. The organization addressed problems of climate change, pollution, and endangered wildlife in Vietnam.

“The Vietnamese authorities are using the vaguely worded tax code as a weapon to punish environmental leaders whom the ruling Communist Party deems a threat to their power,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop punishing activists for peacefully advocating action on climate change and for green policies, and drop the case against Hoang Thi Minh Hong.”

Hoang Thi Minh Hong, 51, founded CHANGE VN in 2013 “to encourage, promote environmental conservation through education, creative communications that encourage behavioral change and inspire the Vietnamese community to take actions.” The organization focused on three key issues: protect endangered wildlife; raise awareness on climate change; and campaign to reduce pollution. CHANGE VN spearheaded more than 200 projects and campaigns related to the environment. Its website has been shut down.

In 2018, Hoang Thi Minh Hong was one of 12 international activists who received a grant from the first Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia University. In December 2018, US President Barack Obama tweeted, “Leaders like Hong Hoang, who mobilized a youth-led movement to create a greener world after becoming the first Vietnamese person [in 1997] to visit Antarctica.”

Over the past two years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its crackdown against mainstream civil society activists. Police arrested the prominent environmental campaigners Dang Dinh Bach, Mai Phan Loi, and Bach Hung Duong in 2021, and Nguy Thi Khanh and Hoang Ngoc Giao in 2022, all on tax evasion charges under article 200 of the criminal code.

International pressure purportedly pushed the Vietnamese authorities to release Mai Phan Loi and Nguy Thi Khanh a few months before the end of their prison sentences. Bach Hung Duong, who was sentenced to 27 months in prison, should have completed his prison sentence as of September 25. Dang Dinh Bach, who remains behinds bars, was reportedly assaulted in prison for demanding that the prison guards respect his basic rights.

Vietnam’s repressive practices are occurring just as the government has sought to amplify its professed commitment to reduce carbon emissions through the implementation of a US$15.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), funded by the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and the European Union and some its major member countries.

On September 11, US President Joe Biden visited Vietnam to confirm an unprecedented upgrade of the relationship between the US and Vietnam to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Among the key goals agreed upon by the two countries were “promoting and protecting human rights,” “advancing climate,” and ensuring “environment cooperation.” But just four days after Biden departed Hanoi, Vietnam arrested another prominent environmental researcher, Ngo Thi To Nhien, the executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (VIET). VIET works alongside the United Nations and donors to help provide research and planning advice for the JETP.

“Having imprisoned the country’s human rights defenders and democracy activists, the Vietnamese government is now targeting those working for a cleaner, more sustainable environment,” Robertson said. “International donors need to be clear with Vietnam’s leaders that the Just Energy Transition Partnership cannot move forward so long as environmental activists are under attack.”

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