Vietnamese authorities have arrested an anti-China blogger under an ambiguous law in the latest crackdown on critics in the bustling social media scene in the one-party communist state.
Police in Ho Chi Minh City searched the home of 65-year-old Hong Le Tho, who had previously lived in Japan, and arrested him on Saturday.
They detained him for violating Article 258 of the Penal Code, which pertains to “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.”
Authorities often have cited Article 258 to make arbitrary arrests of bloggers, activists and lawyers.
The Ministry of Public Security said Saturday on its website that it had detained Tho for “posting online articles with bad content and false information that discredit and create distrust among people about state agencies, social agencies and citizens,” according to reports.
Many of his posts have been critical of China, Vietnam’s giant neighbor which has been accused by Hanoi of territorial encroachment and political bullying over their overlapping claims to island chains in the South China Sea.
Freelance journalist Pham Chi Dung, who is acquainted with Tho, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that Tho was among those who had raised the issue in Vietnam of “escaping China’s orbit’ – or Thoat Trung in Vietnamese.
“He can speak French and English,” he said. “His blog ‘Nguoi Lot Gach’ [A Brick Layer] can be regarded as the only website in Vietnam that has news review in both French and English, providing information to readers.”
“There is no way that he violated Article 258, abusing this or that or democracy to overthrow the government or carry out propaganda against the government,” he said.
“Sometimes when talking to me, he was critical of extreme opinions,” Dung said.
“I don’t know why they arrested him. If there is nothing special to hide, they need to make everything transparent. They just can’t arrest someone like this, especially using Article 258 which has been strongly condemned by the international community.”
Tho has also written about social and political issues in Vietnam for his blog, which was set up more than three years ago.
The Vietnamese government has sought to silence criticism of how it has dealt with the issue of anti-China protests in Vietnam and arresting their organizers.
But Dung suggested that because Tho is well-known, authorities had to be careful about arresting him.
“Many people in the country know him,” he said. “That is why I think with his name, the government had to seriously consider arresting him because they didn’t want to get into trouble with the U.S. and western countries.”
The U.S. has long criticized Vietnam for its abysmal human rights record, marked by the suppression of basic freedoms, media censorship, and repression of workers’ rights as well as its worsening record of arresting and imprisoning dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders.
Dung also said police cited “information from the people” about Tho’s activities as a basis for his arrest, a move which Dung said was “unusual.”
“I know they normally only use information from the people when investigating criminal suspects, not political ones or dissidents. So it is unusual that they would use this for Tho.”
Tho’s arrest came a month after Vietnamese authorities decided to press charges against prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as Anh Ba Sam, and his assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, after detaining them for publishing anti-government essays.
Although lawyers have called the impending court action illegal, authorities plan to prosecute the two, who were arrested in May in Hanoi, for violating article 258 by posting essays “that had the potential to tarnish the state apparatus’ prestige,” according to state media.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, approximately 150 to 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam simply for exercising their basic rights.
Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which lists Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet,” says 26 other bloggers and citizen journalists are still held in the country, which is the world’s third-largest prison for netizens.
Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.