Human rights defender and lawyer Dang Dinh Manh will represent outspoken Vietnamese democracy activist and author Pham Doan Trang who was arrested last week for crimes against the state, he said, adding that while Trang has received essentials in detention she has yet to meet with her family.
Trang was arrested at an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City on the night of Oct. 6 and charged under article 117 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code, accused of “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” as well as “anti-state propaganda” under article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. She faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Described by state media as a blogger who used to work for various publications in Vietnam, Trang was transferred to the capital Hanoi where she is currently being held at the Public Security Ministry’s No. 1 Detention Camp.
Lawyer Manh, who has represented defendants in several high-profile political cases, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Monday that he had registered with investigating police in Hanoi to represent Trang.
“The reason activist [Trang] is indicted for two charges … is because they are based on her actions both before and after Jan. 1, 2018, when the 1999 Penal Code expired and the 2015 Penal Code took effect,” he said.
Rights groups condemned Trang’s apprehension just hours after annual U.S.-Vietnam human rights talks and warned that the blogger faced the risk of torture in custody.
Following Trang’s arrest, her friends posted a message they said was written by her in advance, that read: “Nobody wants to go to jail, but if prison is the place for those who fight for freedom, and if it is the place to carry out set goals, then we should go to prison.”
Manh said that as of Monday, “[Trang’s] relatives were allowed to send essentials, including utensils and money, to her … but have not yet been able to meet her.”
“If [Trang’s] relatives want to meet her, they must wait for as long as the first phase of investigation process takes to complete, and Pham Doan Trang has to also cooperate with investigating police,” he said. “Otherwise, they will only be able to meet her at the trial of first instance.”
International watchdogs and officials of Western governments have demanded that Trang be freed, including U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert A. Destro, who tweeted over the weekend that the Trump administration “urge[s] the Government of Vietnam to immediately release her and drop all charges.”
Last month Trang had published the 3rd edition of a report of a violent clash at Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi in January. The publication of the first edition of that report one week after the incident led to the arrest in June of three out of five of its authors—Can Thi Theu and her sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu. They were also charged with anti-state propaganda.
Amid a spate of arrests and abuse of independent journalists this year in Vietnam, Trang told RFA in May that toleration of dissent was deteriorating and likely to get worse in the run-up to the ruling party congress next January.
Trang, who released a well-regarded book titled Politics for Everyone, was awarded the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2019 Press Freedom Prize. She founded the online legal magazine Luat Khoa and edits another web-based rights journal called thevietnamese.
In August 2018, Trang was among at least four activists who were attacked after policemen stormed into a cafe and broke up dissident singer Nguyen Tin’s “Memory of Saigon” show.
She was then taken by police to an unknown road outside the city and “beaten further to the point of disfiguring her face,” friends said at the time.
Vietnamese police routinely investigate postings on Facebook and other online media that authorities claim “slander or offend the prestige” of Vietnamese government leaders, including Communist Party members and provincial officials.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent has deteriorated sharply this year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists and publishers, as well as Facebook personalities.
Estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience now held in Vietnam’s jails vary widely. HRW says that authorities held 138 political prisoners as of October 2019, while Defend the Defenders has suggested that at least 240 are in detention, with 36 convicted last year alone.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.