A group of 40 Western and Vietnamese scholars and experts on Vietnam have come together to denounce the jailing of two prominent Vietnamese pro-democracy bloggers.
In a statement sent Monday to Vietnamese government and Communist Party leaders, the intellectuals focused on the plight of two women who were sentenced earlier this year to heavy sentences for posting “anti-state propaganda” and “distorting the situation in Vietnam.”
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, arrested in October 2016 and Tran Thi Nga, arrested in January of this year were sentenced to 10 and nine years’ imprisonment respectively.
“These are particularly heavy sentences against the two women, who are mothers with children under 10 years old, for activities that should not and must not have been criminalized in the first place,” the group of scholars and experts said.
They strongly requested that the two women be immediately released for both legal and humanitarian reasons.
The statement’s 40 signatories include foreign and Vietnamese scholars from leading universities in Australia, Canada, France, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and The United Kingdom as well as engineers and independent researchers.
The overseas Vietnamese community is also well represented among the signatories.
David Brown, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on Vietnam who signed the statement, said that the scholars’ appeal is “a milestone of sorts.”
Brown said that to his knowledge it’s the first time that such a large number of Western intellectuals have spoken up on prisoners of conscience since May, 1979, when Joan Baez and 80 others denounced Hanoi’s brutal “reconstruction” of a conquered South Vietnam.
Some 70 percent of the signatories to the statement sent to Hanoi on Monday were Western scholars and experts.
The list includes a number of Western scholars who had held back from speaking out publicly on the issue of Vietnamese political prisoners in the past. Some had apparently feared that they would lose their access to Vietnam by going public with their concerns.
A history of petitioning
But this isn’t the first time that both Vietnamese and foreign scholars have sent petitions or appeals to Hanoi calling for the release of imprisoned prisoners of conscience whose only crime was to peacefully call for reforms.
Ben Kerkvliet, an American political scientist and emeritus professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, noted that people inside Vietnam have created, circulated, and signed petitions and statements addressed to high-ranking Vietnamese officials over the years.
For almost a decade, Vietnamese protesters and petitioners have addressed among other issues the imprisonment of peaceful demonstrators, environmental issues, and concerns about Vietnam’s relations with China.
In 2009 and 2011, the organizers of petitions against a plan to mine for bauxite in Vietnam’s Central Highlands included not only scientists and intellectuals but also retired senior Vietnamese officials.
They stated that devastating environmental damage would result from the mining, which was to be carried out by a Chinese state-owned company.
In mid-2013, a widely signed petition addressed the plight of Cu Huy Ha Vu, a lawyer who was arrested in November of 2012 after calling for a multi-party political system in Vietnam. A district court sentenced him to seven years in prison and three years of house arrest.
More than half of the signatories to that petition were Western scholars.
In late May of 2013, Dr. Vu went on a hunger strike. In April 2014, he was released from prison and allowed to travel to the United States.
By Amnesty International’s count, Vietnam is currently holding at least 84 prisoners of conscience, the highest number in any country in Southeast Asia.
AI describes such prisoners as “men and women who have been imprisoned for their beliefs and/or peaceful activism."
Two Women Who Dared Speak Out
Professor Kerkvliet said the signers of the scholars and experts’ statement decided to focus on two imprisoned Vietnamese women because of “their lengthy sentences, their modest ‘offenses,” and the fact that their young children “desperately need them at home.”
The two women activists, Tran Ngoc Nhu Quynh and Tran Thi Nga, are both bloggers who were assaulted more than once by security police and unidentified thugs. Such plainclothes thugs are known to work with the police.
Quynh, age 38, under her pen name or pseudonym “Mother Mushroom,” was considered Vietnam’s most famous blogger. She worked to promote the rights of ordinary Vietnamese and gained attention championing the victims of a massive toxic spill in coastal central Vietnam in April 2016 and captured on videos incidents involving police brutality.
The other activist, Nga, 40, is a self-taught expert on labor rights who despite poor health campaigned for the rights of workers and farmers.
In 2014, several unidentified men attacked Nga with iron rods.
During their trials, supporters of the two women were not allowed into the courtroom.