Vietnamese authorities arrested four people Wednesday for alerting foreign diplomats about a deadly clash between police and land rights protesters in January at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi, police and relatives of the detainees said.
The four had been outspoken in social media postings about the Dong Tam clash, in which three police officers and a village leader died in a raid on protesters in a bitter land dispute, and had openly offered information to embassies and other foreign figures to try to raise awareness of the incident.
Their arrests bring to a dozen the number of Vietnamese taken in for posts on Facebook, in what rights groups say is part of an intensifying crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents six months before the Communist Party of Vietnam’s next five-yearly party congress.
Activist Can Thi Theu, her sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu, and land rights petitioner Nguyen Thi Tam were charged with “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” in violation of Article 117 of the penal code.
Trinh Thi Thao, daughter of Can Thi Theu and sister of the Trinh brothers, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service how police took in her mother and brother Ba Phuong at their home in Duong Noi ward, Ha Dong district, Hanoi.
“They read the search warrant and accused my brother of spreading information against the state,” she said.
The Jan. 9 raid on Dong Tam protesters, involving 3,000 security officers, was the latest flare-up of a long-running dispute over a military airport construction site about 25 miles south of Hanoi.
Wednesday’s arrests occurred about almost week after Hanoi Police concluded their investigation about the clash, with a finding accusing 29 citizens of murder and obstructing on-duty police officers.
In a video made and posted on Facebook in apparent anticipation of his arrest, Trinh Ba Phuong showed the police attempting to drag away two women who were standing in front of his house, while an officer in the uniform of a firefighter used pliers to break into the house.
“Everybody, if I am arrested, do not worry about me,” he said, adding that was in good health and had no thoughts of suicide -- a statement issued to thwart official deception should he die while in custody.
“If they arrest me today it means they are arresting me because of Dong Tam. I hope the international community and all foreign organizations are taking notice of the Dong Tam incident,” Trinh Ba Phuong said.
“There are 29 people in Dong Tam commune facing harsh sentences.”
“I tried to send out truthful information, accurate images and photos to the Vietnamese public and the international community, but they consider everything I have done to be an attempt to affect the investigating organizations and the political system,” he added.
An officer at the Duong Noi ward police station confirmed the arrests of Can and Trinh, but directed further questions to the Hanoi police hotline. The Hanoi police told RFA to contact the Ha Dong district police, but RFA was unable to connect with the district station.
Ba Tu, the older Trinh brother, was arrested in nearby Hoa Binh province, where police first detained his father, Trinh Ba Khiem from his home near, Ba Tu’s.
“Early this morning, police came to my home before I was even up,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“They broke down my door and forced their way in and restrained me. They searched the house and collected come documents, then took me to Ba Tu’s house,” he said.
“The police entered his house and restrained him while they searched the place. I didn’t hear anything about any arrest warrant,” he added.
The family has had several run-ins with the authorities over the past few years.
In September 2014, the husband and wife were sentenced by Hanoi police to 15 months in jail for “disturbing public order,” for joining in land enforcement protests.
In 2016, Can was arrested again when she participated in a protest in Dong Da district. She was sentenced by the court to 20 months in jail for again “disturbing public order.”
Others arrested on article 117
Also on Wednesday, two activists in the southern part of the country were arrested for violating Article 117.
Nguyen Thi Cam Thuy of Khanh Hoa province had live-streamed herself and others burning Vietnamese flags and a portrait of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
Vu Tien Chi of Lam Dong province had created several Facebook accounts and used them to share stories deemed to be slander against the state and party leaders.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the arrests for social media posts are part of a wide and heavy-handed campaign to suppress dissent to make the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 13th party congress scheduled for January 2021 appear to run smoothly.
“Vietnam has basically made it a crime to use the internet or social media platforms to voice opinions or engage in debate,” Sifton said in a statement on June 19.
The 88 Project, an Illinois-based NGO that tracks Vietnamese political prisoners, this week reported that in 2019 an increasing number of people were arrested under article 117.
“Many of those charged with this crime had no history of activism and were solely targeted for their peaceful expression online. Forty percent of the people arrested in 2019 were online commentators,” the NGO said.
Vietnam, with a population of 92 million people, of which 55 million are estimated to be users of Facebook, has been consistently rated “not free” in the areas of internet and press freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group.
Dissent is not tolerated in the communist nation, and authorities routinely use a set of vague provisions in the penal code to detain dozens of writers and bloggers.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Eugene Whong.