Vietnamese authorities arrested a human rights activist over the weekend, sparking concern from the U.N. over Hanoi’s use of a section of the country’s criminal code to throttle dissent.
Tran Thi Nga (a.k.a. Thuy Nga) and her husband Phan Van Phong were arrested on Saturday at their home in the northern province of Ha Nam, according to a Facebook post by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Her husband told RFA that the timing was not coincidental.
“It’s not a coincidence that she was arrested just before Tet,” he said. “It is a dirty trick that comes only from a communist regime.”
The Tet marks the lunar New Year in Vietnam and is the country’s most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Like many in Vietnam, Nga had family coming for the holiday that this year begins on Jan. 26.
“Her father is very ill and can only walk around the house with a cane,” her husband told RFA. “She has a sister who lives in France, who comes home to celebrate the Lunar New Year, and a younger brother who lives in Saigon, who will also be home for Tet.”
Nga was charged under Article 88 of the Vietnam’s Penal Code for allegedly “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” as she is accused of posting anti-state material on the internet, according to state media.
Article 88 is considered a “national security offence” and carries a sentence of between three and 20 years of imprisonment. It also allows the incommunicado detention of Tran Thi Nga during the whole period of the investigation.
Nga is well known for defending the rights of Vietnamese migrant workers and the victims of government land grabs.
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents— is a major cause of protests in Vietnam and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Cambodia.
In its Facebook post, the OHCHR decried the use of Article 88 and last year the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, urged the Government of Vietnam to repeal Article 88 and other provisions that breach international human rights standards.
Three other activists arrested
While Nga’s arrest drew the most attention, three other activists were also reported to have been arrested in the past few days.
Former political prisoner Nguyen Van Oai, along with activist Nguyen Van Hoa and another man Nguyen Thi Mien were also arrested, according to The 88 Project, an organization that tracks, supports and encourages freedom of expression in Vietnam.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 19 bloggers and activists were put on trial and convicted during the first nine months of 2016, and others continue to be held without trial, including rights campaigners Nguyen Van Dai, Tran Anh Kim, Le Thanh Tung, and Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh.
Activist Bui Tuan Lam told RFA that the arrests at a time in Vietnam that people gather with family.
“I feel very sad and also a bit surprised because three people were arrested at the same time, especially Thuy Nga who has two little children,” he said. “I was surprised because of the time they chose to arrest those people. but I am not surprised at the arrests because I already felt that the government would be harsh when they cracked down.”
Former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Bac Truyen told RFA that the government uses arrests and the threat of arrest as a way to silence dissent.
“The government of Vietnam does not care when they carry out arrests. They don’t care if it is close to Tet or the person has little children or the family has some problems,” he said. “They punish the activists, and at the same time threaten others.”
Reported and translated by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.