Vietnamese Environmental Activists Handed Prison Terms in Nghe An

Hoang Duc Binh and Nguyen Nam Phong had taken part in protests against the government's handling of a massive 2016 waste spill.

Hoang Duc Binh (R) and Nguyen Nam Phong are shown at their trial in Vietnam's Nghe An province, Feb. 6, 2018.

A court in north-central Vietnam’s Nghe An province sentenced two environmental activists to prison terms on Tuesday for “abusing democratic freedoms” and obstructing officials in the performance of their duties, sources said.

Hoang Duc Binh, a blogger on environmental issues, was handed a 14-year term under Articles 257 and 258 of Vietnam’s penal code.

Binh was arrested on May 15, 2017, by arresting officers who dragged him from a car more than a year after organizing protests over the government’s response to a waste spill the year before by a Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group steel plant.

The spill killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen jobless in four coastal provinces.

Fellow activist Nguyen Nam Phong, a driver for Nghe An-based priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc, meanwhile was sentenced to a two-year term.

No evidence against the two men was ever presented in court, defense lawyer Ha Huy Son told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Tuesday.

“I argued that Binh was not guilty of ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ as no evidence was brought forward,” Son said.

“Thus, there were no grounds on which to judge whether he was guilty or not, or whether [the charges made against him] were a complete fabrication,” he said.

“Secondly, he was accused of acting against officials on duty, but Binh and Phong both said that they had been attacked [by the arresting officers] and were therefore only acting in self defense.”

“There were no grounds for administrative penalties to be given, let alone any prosecution for criminal liability. We think that Binh was given an unfair sentence, one that does not comply with current law,” he said.

Also speaking to RFA, Binh’s mother Hoang Duc Binh expressed pride in her son, who she said had shown great courage at his trial.

“I am very proud of Binh. He looked at me and smiled,” she said. “I am not afraid or worried for him at all.”

“He and Phong were very calm, and he confidently answered every question that was put to him,” she said.

Supporters beaten, detained

At least twelve people who arrived at the court building to show support were beaten and held at a police station in Nghe An’s Vinh city until the trial ended at 12:00 p.m., sources said, adding that two of Binh’s brothers were among those assaulted by police.

“Several uniformed police officers hit me on my side because I wouldn’t comply with their request to give them my fingerprints or show them what was on my phone,” Binh’s brother Hoang Duc Nguyen told RFA.

“I was in a room pretty far from where my youngest brother was, but I could still hear him screaming as he was beaten,” he said.

“They beat him so brutally that he had to beg for his life.”

“I can’t express how cruel the communist police are,” Nguyen said. “There are no words to describe it.”

Writing before Binh and Phong were brought to trial, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) called Vietnam's crackdown on dissent last year "unprecedented" and urged greater engagement by Western countries on human rights in the one-party communist state.

"The fact that the EU and the US are more interested in signing business deals than talking about human rights has emboldened Hanoi to harden its attacks on basic civil and political rights," FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard said in a January statement.

"It's time for the international community to vigorously re-engage with Hanoi on human rights," Stothard said.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Richard Finney.