Authorities in Vietnam detained and later released a democracy activist as she tried to enter the country from neighboring Laos, with state media claiming she maintains ties to “reactionary” organizations banned by the government and had earlier been forbidden from traveling abroad.
Nguyen Thi Phi, 56, was taken into custody on Oct. 17 by Vietnamese border control officers while passing through the Cau Treo checkpoint from Laos into Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province, according to a report by the official VietnamNet Bridge, published three days later.
Phi had been “prohibited” from leaving Vietnam and was not in possession of a passport, VietnamNet said, but had illegally traveled to Cambodia in August through the Moc Bai checkpoint in Vietnam’s Tay Ninh province before continuing on to Thailand, where she had previously lived.
State-owned Voice of Vietnam said police in Ha Tinh searched Phi’s laptop and an external hard drive and found “several documents proving her relationship with reactionary people both inside and outside Vietnam.” Included in the documents were articles promoting the activities of Viet Tan—a pro-democracy party banned in the country, it said in a report.
The report featured a photo of Phi surrounded by officers and holding a sign with her name on it, detailing her alleged offenses.
On Thursday, Phi posted a message to her Facebook account saying that police had released her but confiscated her computer and hard drive, and that she was able to communicate online only by visiting an internet café.
She did not specify when she had been set free.
Phi said she had traveled to Thailand to retrieve assets she left there during her stay and—because she lacked a passport—had joined up with “illegal Vietnamese migrants” who promised to help her reenter Vietnam.
However, she was “left on my own at the Cau Treo checkpoint because they didn’t honor the agreement,” and was subsequently detained.
Phi denied that she was in possession of “reactionary” documents when she attempted to enter the country, and said she had expected to pass through the border after paying a fine for traveling without a passport.
“My computer didn’t contain any documents against the government of Vietnam, as claimed by the Ha Tinh border police,” the message said.
“They only told me that because I had entered Vietnam without passport, I would have to pay a fine, according to the law on immigration.”
According to Phi, she paid the fine, but border police then “forced” her to hold up a sign with her name and offenses written on it and took a photo.
“I asked them why they did it and they said they needed to keep a record at the border to monitor for illegal immigrants, and that the photo would not be used in the newspaper,” she said.
Phi added that, after her release, she met with police in the capital Hanoi to discuss the incident at the checkpoint, demanding that her photo and claims about her being in possession of reactionary documents be removed from all state media reports.
The police told her to “remain calm” and said they would contact her later.
“I’m still waiting for the response from the Hanoi public security police to my request,” she wrote.
‘Not a member of Viet Tan’
When contacted by RFA’s Vietnamese Service, Viet Tan spokesman Hoang Tu Duy denied that Phi had any connection to his party.
“Nguyen Thi Phi is not a member of Viet Tan and has nothing to do with Viet Tan’s activities, so we are unaware of what documents she may have been in possession of,” Duy said.
“Viet Tan has no knowledge of her activities,” he added.
Duy stressed that Viet Tan’s mission is to promote the democratization of Vietnam in a nonviolent manner.
“Unfortunately, the government of Vietnam believes that any positive activities aimed at reform are ‘reactionary’ or ‘against the state,’” he said.
“We believe that all Vietnamese people should have the right to contribute to change in the country.”
Nguyen Thi Phi fled to Thailand in 2011 after accusing police in Hanoi of harassing and beating her, which she said was in retribution for several articles critical of the government she had posted online.
In an interview with RFA at the time, Phi said that she felt the need to relocate to Thailand because life in Vietnam was devoid of human rights and the freedom of expression.
“While life abroad may be extremely difficult, at least we have the right to speak our minds freely,” she said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.