Fleeing Vietnam, human rights lawyers arrive in U.S. following police summons

Friends back home react to their departure with mixed feelings.
By RFA Vietnamese
2023.06.23
Fleeing Vietnam, human rights lawyers arrive in U.S. following police summons Vietnamese lawyers Nguyen Van Mien and Dang Dinh Manh stand in front of a photo of the U.S. Capitol at Dulles International Airport after their arrival on June 16, 2023.
Credit: RFA

Three of the five lawyers who defended a Buddhist organization in a case in Vietnam last year – and who were later summoned for police questioning after publicly discussing the case – have fled the country and arrived safely in the United States.

Dang Dinh Manh and Nguyen Van Mieng flew into Washington’s Dulles International Airport last week. A third lawyer, Dao Kim Lan, told Voice of America that he was in “a very safe place” and was arranging his new life.

“When the plane landed, I felt really relieved after 100 days of being hunted down,” Mieng told Radio Free Asia. “With my visa, it took me only around 30 minutes to go through customs. I was so ecstatic that I almost forgot to pick up my luggage.”

The lawyers defended six members of the Peng Lei Buddhist House who were found guilty in July 2022 and sentenced to a combined 23 years and six months for incest and fraud. 

While they were providing legal support to the Peng Lei members, the three lawyers, as well as two others – Ngo Thi Hoang Anh and Trinh Vinh Phuc – also used the YouTube account Nhật ký Luật sư (Lawyer's Diary) to frequently post information about the case. The account no longer has any video content.

The public discussion of the case could be a violation of Vietnam’s Article 331 – a statute in the penal code widely criticized by international communities as being vague. Vietnamese authorities routinely use it to attack those speaking out in defense of human rights.

Public search notice 

Authorities in the southern province of Long An issued a summons to the five lawyers in March that required them to report to the police for questioning. When the lawyers didn’t appear, police followed up with several more summonses. 

Provincial Police on June 11 posted a search notice on its website, saying that Mieng, Lan and Manh had neither attended the meetings nor provided excuses for their absence. 

“The police at their wards of residence confirmed they were not at their places of residence and there was no information about their whereabouts, what they were doing, and they could not be contacted,” the police notice said.

The notice also said that investigators had begun searching for the lawyers and requested that anyone who sees them “immediately report to Long An Provincial Police’s Investigation Agency.” 

The whereabouts and status of the other two lawyers in the Peng Lei case – Anh and Phuc – was unknown.

In an interview with RFA after his arrival in the United States, Manh said that he was aware of the police decision to actively search for him. 

“However, I don’t think I have the responsibility to abide by this decision as it is not aligned with the regulations on criminal procedures,” he said.

Leaving Vietnam was within his rights as a citizen under Vietnam’s Constitution, he said.

“It’s my right to leave the country, travel and choose a place to reside and work,” he said. “I don’t know much about the U.S., but so far, I’ve been fascinated and overwhelmed. I have some projects to do here and have just kicked them off.”

‘Will critical voices still exist?’

The news about the lawyers’ arrival in the United States generated mixed feelings from friends and acquaintances in Vietnam.

“I am happy for my friends but worried for those who still remain,” Hanoi lawyer Ngo Anh Tuan, who has worked as a defense attorney in many political cases, wrote on Facebook.

“The total number of lawyers nationwide who dare to defend clients in political cases was less than the number of our fingers,” Tuan wrote. “Now nearly half have left. The quantity has decreased. I am not sure how the quality has been affected but the spirit of the remaining people has obviously gone down.”

“Will this trend stop, or will people continue to leave the country? Will critical voices still exist or gradually disappear over time?”

Over the last 15 years, Manh defended more than 50 clients, many of whom were human rights and democracy activists and independent journalists.

Manh and Mieng stood out among the modest number of lawyers who dared to work in political cases, according to a young attorney from the Hanoi Bar Association who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

It’s now more likely that prosecuting agencies will designate government-aligned lawyers to participate in political cases as defense lawyers, he said.

“Their departure creates a gap in political cases,” he said. “Lawyers now tend to avoid political cases.”

Evidence of a weak judiciary

But another lawyer from Hanoi who did not want to be named said that the three lawyers’ departure wouldn’t significantly affect the situation in Vietnam. 

“Escaping has never been a step forward, nor does it create any impact,” he wrote in a text message to RFA on Wednesday. “It’s simply a way to ensure the safety of those who left.”

However, their departure is more evidence of the weak position of lawyers in Vietnam’s judiciary, he said.

Lawyer Ngo Anh Tuan said that the Vietnamese government should change its treatment of lawyers.

“I asked myself many times: Instead of pushing political dissidents to the corner so that they have to make extremist choices, why doesn’t the government listen to them and have a dialogue with them so that conflicts will be settled and their knowledge can be utilized to make our country more democratic and advanced?”

RFA contacted Long An Provincial Police for comment on the search notice for the three lawyers. A message left with a staff member wasn’t immediately returned. 

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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