International rights groups on Wednesday called for the immediate and unconditional release of six Vietnamese activists ahead of their trial on charges of “subversion,” as new information emerged detailing nearly 100 prisoners of conscience languishing in Vietnam’s jails.
Prominent rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, his colleague Le Thu Ha, and citizen journalists Pham Van Troi, Nguyen Trung Ton, Truong Minh Duc and Nguyen Bac Truyen, are to be tried Thursday in Hanoi for “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. They face life imprisonment or even capital punishment if convicted.
The six are accused of affiliation with Brotherhood for Democracy—founded by Dai in 2013 to defend human rights and promote democratic ideals in Vietnam—and have campaigned for victims, advocated for religious freedom, and supported political prisoners and their families.
Troi, Ton, Duc and Truyen have also campaigned against Taiwanese steel firm Formosa, which dumped toxic waste into the sea along the coast of central Vietnam in April 2016—an environmental crisis official media has said Brotherhood for Democracy exploited to stir up public dissent.
Dai and Ha were arrested in December 2015 and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state,” under Article 88 of the Penal Code, but were charged instead under Article 79 in July 2017. The other four were arrested in July last year under the same charge.
New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement Wednesday urging Vietnam to drop charges against the six defendants and release them from custody.
“The only crime that these activists have committed is to campaign tirelessly for democracy and defend victims of human rights abuses,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.
“The Vietnamese government should thank them for their efforts to improve the country instead of arresting and putting them on trial.”
London-based Amnesty International called the upcoming trial “unfair” and said the activists are facing “trumped-up charges.”
“Authorities should start by immediately dropping the ludicrous charges against the six activists facing trial tomorrow and set them free without conditions,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Also on Wednesday, a consortium of international organizations including Reporters Without Borders, the Viet Tan pro-democracy group, Brotherhood for Democracy and Frontline Defenders added their voices to the chorus calling on the Vietnamese government to free the six activists.
“We condemn the arrests of these six human rights defenders and call on the Vietnamese government to immediately release them and withdraw all charges and release other peaceful activists and advocates of free expression who have been arbitrarily detained,” the groups said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, Troi’s wife, Nguyen Thi Huyen Trang, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that she and the wives of Dai, Ton, Duc and Truyen had been refused the right to attend Thursday’s trial, and recently traveled to the Hanoi People’s Court to demand that the proceedings be opened to the public.
“We have written many letters … including petitions to ask for permission to attend the trial but they only received our letters without giving any answer,” Trang said.
“Even though it should be open to the public, in fact it is not. This has happened in other dissidents’ trials before, so we are worried that this will also happen to us.”
Prisoners of conscience
Amid the calls to drop charges against the six activists, Amnesty International said that at least 97 prisoners of conscience are currently being held in Vietnam’s prisons, many of whom it said are kept incommunicado in squalid conditions and routinely subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.
“Viet Nam is one of Southeast Asia’s most prolific jailers of peaceful activists—a shameful title no one should aspire to,” Gomez said in Amnesty’s statement.
“The 97 prisoners of conscience that we are aware of in the country are all brave women and men who have been robbed of their freedom for nothing but promoting human rights.”
Amnesty said that its number is “likely an underestimation,” noting that it is impossible to know the real figure, due to “the shroud of secrecy the Vietnamese authorities operate under.”
Among the 97 prisoners of conscience are lawyers, bloggers, rights defenders, environmental activists and pro-democracy campaigners Amnesty said had used peaceful methods, but were mostly handed lengthy jail sentences in show trials.
It said 88 are male and nine female, 40 are activists—political, social and environmental—and 57 are religious followers, including 37 from indigenous groups. Of those whose ages are known, two are under 25 years old, 75 are between the ages of 25 to 64, and 18 are 65 years old and above.
The new figure constitutes an increase from previous years, Amnesty said, despite some releases due to completed sentences.
Gomez said that he expects the list of prisoners of conscience to grow longer, unless Vietnam’s government ends its practice of jailing and harassing peaceful opponents.
“Viet Nam must immediately release everyone who has been jailed for nothing but peacefully speaking their minds, and take their obligation to respect human rights for everyone seriously,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.