[Vietnam] The crusade against double targets

Freedom of expression in Vietnam has shrunk dramatically since early 2016 when the communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong reinforced his position in the Party’s 12th Congress and started his personal crusade, disguised as an “anti-corruption battle,” against both his communist rivals inside the party and his non-communist dissidents, most of whom are democracy and rights activists. The situation got worse throughout 2017 with massive arrests of and harsh punishment against both of his targets.

Traditionally in Vietnam and China, the year before the Party Congress is the time when the communist government tends to be tougher against dissidents – “to stabilize the political situation” as they put it. But since the 12th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in January 2016, the government has proved to be so tough even though it was just halfway through their terms of office or halfway through the time between two congresses. Dozens of people have been arrested and many were given lengthy prison terms.


No tolerance

In his seventies, Nguyen Phu Trong, the party boss, is said to be a real dogmatist of Marxism-Leninism. This may be part of the reason why since he won the decisive victory at the Party congress and became the most powerful man in the communist state of Vietnam, local leaders in the country felt the need to demonstrate their loyalty to the central government and its ideology, and they did this by getting tougher on civil society movement.

The spring of 2017 marked the beginning of a harsh crackdown on citizen journalists who were vocal about an environmental disaster caused by the Taiwanese steel corporation, Formosa, in central Vietnam in the previous year. In the countdown to Vietnam’s lunar new year, security forces in the central, coastal province of Ha Tinh arrested the 22-year-old freelance journalist Nguyen Van Hoa, and their comrades in the northern province of Ha Nam arrested human rights activist Nguyen Thi Nga (a.k.a. Thuy Nga), a single mother famous for her youtube footages critical of the government. Being charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, both were denied access to family and legal representation.

On 8 April 2017, Hoa “confessed” on a local TV, and his confession was posted online for the nationwide audience in an obvious humiliation of a rights activist. This televised confession was not taken as a mitigating factor for Hoa, though: he was sentenced to seven years in prison in a secret trial in November, where he was denied legal defense or family members. The courtroom, however, was full of policemen and state journalists who came to film Hoa.

The arrests of Hoa and Nga were just the beginning of a new wave of suppression. In the following months, successive arrests were taken against dozens of bloggers across the country: Vu Quang Thuan, Nguyen Van Dien, Bui Hieu Vo, Phan Kim Khanh, Hoang Duc Binh, Tran Hoang Phuc, among others. All of them were charged under Article 88 because of the contents they produced online, mostly facebook livestream videos.

But the most shocking attack against human rights activists, or potential political dissidents, must have happened on Sunday, 30 July 2017, when the police suddenly and simultaneously detained five members of the Brotherhood for Democracy, an independent, unregistered NGO working to promote human rights and freedoms in Vietnam. All were arrested and charged under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, which vaguely stipulates that “those who carry out activities, establish or join organizations with intent to overthrow the people’s administration…. shall be sentenced to between twelve and twenty years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment” without elaboration of what a “people’s administration” is or what it means by “to overthrow”, or even “intent to overthrow.”

Since then until January 2018, there was an escalating suppression and imprisonment of members of the Brotherhood for Democracy. All of their core members and high-ranking leaders were arrested; others were hunted nationwide. The arrestees were all denied access to lawyers, families, and basic supplies including medicine.


Shocking punishment of critical voices

On 29 June 2017 Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (a.k.a. Mother Mushroom) was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a one-day trial in her hometown Nha Trang. The sentence struck a blow on the whole community of rights activists in Vietnam, especially when Quynh had long been known for her international reputation and purely peaceful expression of her opinion for human rights and rule of law.

In July, Thuy Nga was given a nine-year sentence in prison. But even Quynh’s and Nga’s lengthy prison terms were less shocking than the punishment imposed on an environmental and labor rights activist, Hoang Duc Binh. Binh, born 1983, is a prominent activist who effectively provided legal support for the victims of the Formosa-caused environmental disaster in central Vietnam. He was arrested in May 2017 and recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for “disrupting peace” and “resisting people performing official duties.” All of his acts of “resistance” were that he made a Facebook livestream of the police who were stamping down a rally on 14 February 2017 by thousands of Formosa victims to a local court to submit their lawsuit against the Taiwanese steel corporation. Binh is believed to have suffered from police torture during custody as he appeared before the court with bruises upon his face.


Hoang Duc Binh at the appeal court on 24 April 2018. Photo courtesy of Vietnam News Agency.


Binh’s companion, Bach Hong Quyen, was hunted nationwide and forcibly fled from the country to seek political asylum last May.

In the first two weeks of April 2018, i.e. two years after the marine life disaster that caused massive fish deaths and worsened the division and conflict between the VCP and the people, a Hanoi court imposed the sentences of 88 years of imprisonment in total on eight members of the Brotherhood for Democracy. Among them, human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai was given the lengthiest prison terms of 15 years.


Left to right: Pham Van Troi (sentenced to seven years in prison), Nguyen Van Dai (15 years), Nguyen Trung Ton (12 years) at the trial court on 5 April 2018.


Enemy of Facebookers

The Vietnamese police show special concern of and hatred against the emerging tendency of Facebook live streaming. Since Facebook introduced its video live streaming platform that allows users to broadcast live video content, Vietnamese Facebookers have appeared to take full advantage of this service, and many would use it to report live on corruption and human rights violations. Traffic police were broadcast taking briberies, plainclothes security officers were caught harassing activists, and public officials’ behavior toward citizens was exposed to millions of viewers through the internet. The police reacted with more and more violence against live streaming Facebookers. Many live streamers reportedly had their smart phones and iPads smashed by the police, they were beaten up and taken to police station under temporary arrest.

Chan Hung (Renovation) TV, a group of Facebookers using live stream service to voice their opinions and comments on current socio-political topics in Vietnam, became a primary target for the Hanoi security forces right when their live streams got popular with thousands of viewers. Its founders were imprisoned with Vu Quang Thuan sentenced to eight years, Nguyen Van Dien six years, and law student Tran Hoang Phuc six years.


News blackout in the ‘Cold War-styled kidnapping’ of Trinh Xuan Thanh

An oil executive-turned-asylum seeker in Berlin, Trinh Xuan Thanh (b. 1966), was abducted in July 2017 and secretly flown back to Vietnam where he would be facing charges of corruption and embezzlement.

While German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the alleged abduction in the German capital was “something that we will not… and cannot tolerate,” Hanoi insisted that Thanh voluntarily returned to Vietnam to surrender himself out of remorse for his crimes. The state-controlled media merely echoed the government’s official view that Thanh returned to confess of his own volition. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a trial that caught public concern in early 2018.

Some media agencies even strongly denounced Germany for “sheltering a criminal” and “obstructing Vietnam’s effort to fight corruption.” Government-hired Internet trollers used a similar tactic to silent any voice criticizing the VCP and its way to deal with the case.

At the same time, a news blackout has been imposed strongly since Germany began to take actions against Vietnam for what they called “a blatant violation of German and international law.” All newspapers stay silent about the kidnapping and the catastrophic consequences it brought to the German-Vietnam relations.

German media reported that the kidnapping may have cost the Vietnamese police apparatus around 10 million euros. This added fuel to public frustration that too much state budget was spent satisfying the personal ambition of the arrogant and assertive party leader, Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong.


It’s not an anti-corruption battle; it’s internal fighting

Many people questioned Nguyen Phu Trong’s determination to fight corruption as most of the high-ranking government officials that have been prosecuted under corruption charges were believed to be “cronies” of Trong’s opponent, former PM Nguyen Tan Dung. At the same time, obviously none of Trong’s allies and supporters ever faced any threat of being investigated and held liable, including Vo Kim Cu, the former head of Ha Tinh province, who signed the 70-year investment license to Formosa, giving the corporation full power to cause a lot of faults which led to the environmental disaster.

The state-owned press is split up as different partisans inside the Party use different media agencies as their mouthpiece and “weapon” to fight.

Another big question is raised about the way allegedly corrupt officials are arrested and prosecuted. As Dinh La Thang, ex-member of the Politburo, the highest-ranking official so far put on trial, said before the court that he begged the law-enforcement bodies to treat law-breakers as human beings, people have good reasons to believe that the searches, arrests and prosecution conducted by the police have made a lot of due process violations. Nguyen Phu Trong himself has never proved that he has any knowledge of rule of law, not to mention appreciation of it. A dogmatist as he is, he can only think of rule of the party.

And finally, the continuous harassment of and harsh sentences against rights activists send a clear message from Trong’s administration that even when he is busily “fighting corruption”, he never allows his potential political rivals any chance to grow. His obedient security forces will crush any effort to take advantage of the situation to threaten the monopoly power of the ruling VCP before they quell other partisans in his crusade against corruption.

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