(Updated on October 6, 2017)
The Vietnam marine life disaster, also known as the Formosa disaster or the fish death disaster, was a water pollution crisis breaking out in Vietnam at least from April 6, 2016. Its most obvious demonstration was the massive fish deaths in the seas of four provinces in central Vietnam: Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue.
The main perpetrator was identified as Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh, Ltd. (FHS), who discharged toxic industrial waste into the sea through their underwater drainage pipes. Formosa itself accepted responsibility for the disaster on June 30, 2016.
Government statistics estimated that at least 115 tons of free-swimming fish, 140 tons of farmed fish, and 67 tons of clams were killed as a result of water pollution. However, real figures must be times higher than these, with tons of shrimp, cuttle, squid, and other kinds of aquatic animals killed as well.
The disaster also cost human lives. At least a diver (Le Van Ngay) was killed after diving in the polluted sea water, a woman (Linh) died of poisonous fish, and a couple (Mr. Le Van Lam and Mrs. Nguyen Thi Huong) got cancers after working for FHS as keepers of their chemical stocks. At least 21 other divers, dozens of fishers and seafood-consumers reported they had got health problems due to their direct or indirect link with the disaster.
The tragic toll caused by the disaster may never be precisely estimated or get public as a result of bad governance and unaccountability.
Worse, and most importantly, the marine life disaster involved a humane and political crisis when the Vietnamese government fails to ensure relevant compensation for the victims; they even go further by brutally suppressing voices of dissent. Widespread human rights violations have made 2016 and 2017 dark years for democracy and freedom in Vietnam, characterized by arbitrary detentions, police violence targeted at civilians, and increasing imprisonment of peaceful activists.
Since October 2016, dozens of activists have been arrested and faced charges related to their activities to protest at Formosa and demand environmental rights. To name some: Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Van Hoa, Hoang Duc Binh, Nguyen Van Oai, Nguyen Viet Dung.
Others have been hunted nationwide, inter alia Bach Hong Quyen, Thai Van Dung, Tran Minh Nhat.
Many have been victims of government-sponsored violence, inter alia Truong Minh Tam, Hoang My Uyen, Vu Huy Hoang, Le My Hanh, Trinh Dinh Hoa, Tran Hoang Phuc, Huynh Thanh Phat.
Fisherman Nguyen Xuan Thanh (36 years old, a resident of Ba Dong hamlet, Ky Phuong commune, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh) dived into the sea and unexpectedly discovered a giant waste discharge pipe. This pipe has a diameter of about 1m. It was discharging a yellow liquid.
The pipe was identified as a submerged pipe belonging to the Formosa corporation, 1.5km in length, buried under the seabed. Formosa confirmed that they have an underground sewage system connecting directly from the Formosa project site in the Vung Ang economic zone to the sea.
“Already discovered it three years ago” Mr. Nguyen Trung Huynh (born in 1968, a resident of Ky Anh commune) has worked as a sea diver for tens of years. He said three years ago, around 2013, he discovered a pipe buried under the seabed. “At the time I was working for Belgium. The people here said the pipe must be from Belgium, but when I checked, I told them it wasn’t, this pipe belonged to Formosa. I notified the environmental police.
The police, the marine police, and the environmental police hired me to dive and reached that area. I did so, took some video footage and photographs and submitted everything to them. They said, “We will investigate this issue.” Then we didn’t hear from them for years, the local people continued to fish as usual. In April 2016, we discovered that they discharged waste liquid.”
(Mr. Nguyễn Trung Huỳnh discussed with Green Trees, on 19 August 2016)
Residents in the two hamlets, Hai Phong 1 and 2 (Ky Loi commune, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh) lost over two tons of groupers and red snappers when they were almost ready for harvest. 
According to Nguyen Thai Bao (resident of Tay Ha hamlet, Ky Ha commune, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh), until the noon of April 6, more than 4,000 red snappers and sea basses – which were over a month old and raised in cages – still ate and moved around as usual. However, around 2 p.m. on April 7, when the tide rose and pushed sea water in, the fish swam slowly and then died en mass. 
Not only farmed fish, but wild (free-swimming) fish also died. “Around 9 a.m. on April 6, Mr. Chu Van Dai – a diver working in the area undersea where Formosa Steel Plant discharged waste in Vung Ang (Ha Tinh) – discovered much dead fish surrounding the pipe’s opening. Mr. Dai felt a bitter sensation in his mouth, exhaustion, and toxin in the water. The whole team of 15 divers felt that seawater tasted different and toxic. Their bodies felt ill so they asked to be off work. A few days later, the local people saw much dead fish drifted to the seaside of different types, some lived in deep water.” 
During these three days, in the three communes Ky Loi, Ky Ha and Ky Ninh (of Ky Anh district), all of the fish belonging to 14 households raising fish in cage, with 18 cages containing different types of fish (red snapper, cobia, grouper, sea bass, etc.) died in mass. Among these were 37,200 breeders, 2,120 kg commercial fish. The damage was over 1 billion Vietnamese dong, approximately USD $45,000.
Wild fish also died in mass in Vung Ang sea (around Son Duong island, Vung Ang port, and Vinh river’s estuary). 
Dead fish drifted into the coast along Quang Dong commune, Quang Trach district, Quang Binh. Dead fish continued to spread southward, to seaside along Nhan Trach, Nhat Le, Bao Ninh, Ngu Thuy, etc. 
The Northern Environmental Monitoring and Aquatic Diseases Center (Aquaculture Research Institute 1 – MARD) published an announcement about the results of their unscheduled monitoring after the abnormal fish deaths took place in Ky Anh, Ha Tinh.
The announcement concluded that virus causing disease was not the cause of this phenomenon, rather fish died in mass due to “toxic agents in the water” in Vung Ang coast. According to this Center, toxin agents originated from untreated wastewater discharged directly into the sea and rivers, polluting seawater and intoxicated fish. 
Tens of fish cages belonging to 60 households living in An Cu Dong, Lang Co town, Phu Loc district, Thua Thien-Hue died en mass in a few days, with the largest number of fish dying on April 15. Damage was estimated to be up to hundreds of millions of dong.
According to Mr. Mai Van Xi – Deputy Head of the Division of Agriculture and Rural Development in Phu Loc district, not only farmed fish but also wild fish living in the Lang Co lagoon died.
After eating fish collected on the seaside, Tran Thanh Thuy (8 years old, Quang Phu commune, Quang Trach district, Quang Binh) vomited and had diarrhea. Her family took her to the commune medical center and she was treated with intravenous drip and monitored. VietNamNet reported this incident and advised people not to buy and sell or eat dead fish while waiting for the authorities to identify the toxic agents. 
A report from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Thue Thien-Hue stated that the amount of PO4 (phosphate) at a benthic layer is 1mg per liter, while the maximum allowable norm is 0.5 mg per liter only. This increased pH concentration. A sudden and drastic increase of PO4 and pH in the water may have shocked the fish and kill them. 
The Deputy Director of the Aquaculture Department under MARD, Pham Khanh Ly, told the press that the government task force is vertical management agencies, however, the Vung Ang industrial zone (including the Vung Ang Thermal Power Plant and Formosa industrial zone) has foreign elements, so they need to form an interdisciplinary task force, with the Prime Minister’s direction, before they can carry out an inspection. 
On the night of 21st and early morning of 22nd April, more than 20 residents of Bo Trach district, Quang Binh province were rushed to emergency service after they ate poisonous seafood in a restaurant in Phuc Trach Commune. Most of the 200 guests who ate the same meal had symptoms of stomachache, nausea, and diarrhea. 
Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh signed a document about sending a task force to the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Co., Ltd. (FHS). 
An inspection team of the MONRE led by the Head of the Department of Environment, Nguyen Van Tai, carried out an inspection at the Petro Vietnam Power Corporation in Ha Tinh (Ky Anh Town, Ha Tinh) and the FHS (Vung Ang economic zone, Ha Tinh). 
The General Secretary of the VCP, Nguyen Phu Trong, also led a mission to visit and check on the Formosa project’s progress, specifically the Iron and Steel Complex Project and the Son Duong Formosa Ha Tinh (FHS) deep-sea port. In addition, he also visited some production sites in Ha Tinh. He did not once mention the ongoing fish death. 
Responding to an interview question from the Giao Thong (Transportation) newspaper about whether people should continue to eat sea fish and swim in waters where dead fish no longer appeared, Mr. Dang Ngoc Son, Vice-Chair of the Ha Tinh Provincial People’s Committee, said: “For now, many aquatic products raised in cages in Vung Ang (Ha Tinh) are growing normally. Seafood such as squid, shrimp, crab and fish that are alive can be consumed. Furthermore, people can swim in these waters without feeling worried.” 
Le Van Ngay (born 1970, from Khanh Hoa), a diver working for Nibelc Company (the building contractor for Formosa’s breakwater in Son Duong port), died mysteriously a hospital. A few hours before, he suffered from chest pains and breathing difficulties during work and was taken to hospital for emergency treatment. 
Mr. Chou Chun Fan, Deputy Head of Formosa’s External Relations Department, Head of the Formosa Office in Ha Noi, said this in a conversation over-the-phone with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper: “It is impossible to build a steel plant here without leaving any impact on fish and shrimp. Of course, we try to build a plant that meets the State’s requirements. Yet it is normal to lose some things as you gain some things. Just like how when we use this area to build our plant, the soil here is no longer good for growing rice. Between these two things, we must choose one, whether I want to catch fish and shrimp or I want to build a modern steel industry? When this area was cleared the local authorities already made a plan to support fishermen to switch jobs, why do they need to keep fishing in this area?
Do you want to keep fishing or do you want to keep the plant? Go ahead and make your decision. If you want both, even the Prime Minister can’t satisfy you…”  Mr. Chou Chun Fan’s comment angered the Vietnamese public on the Internet.
Quang Binh province called for an urgent meeting. The Chair of the Provincial People’s Committee, Mr. Nguyen Huu Hoai, ordered a ban on swimming in the sea during this time to prevent any mishaps.
The Thua Thien-Hue Department of Natural Resources and Environment announced that they received the analysis result from the water sample taken from Lang Co lagoon and Lang Co seaport (Lang Co town, Phu Loc), the seaside along Quang Cong commune (Quang Dien), Dien Huong, Dien Hai (Phong Dien). According to the analysis, the total nitrogen content (nitrogen, chemical symbol N) calculated on ammonium content (NH4), heavy metal chromium content (chromium, chemical symbol Cr) exceeds the limit allowed by the National Technical Regulation on seawater quality and National Technical Regulation on surface water quality.
This result also pointed out that the cause of both wild fish and farmed fish’s death was not a disease but rather a very powerful agent – a toxic in the water originating from somewhere north of Thua Thien-Hue province. 
On the same day, the Ha Tinh newspaper published an article titled “The sea is now clearer, the environment is no longer polluted”.  This article encouraged fishermen to continue their work, and “overcome obstacles and losses”. This article was criticized by even mainstream press (such as the Petro Times). 
In the afternoon, Mr. Chou Chun Fan and the management team in Ha Tinh organized a press conference and bowed to apologize for their statement of “choose fish or choose steel.”
A petition signed by Vietnamese people appeared on the website “We the People” managed by the White House. This petition requested the American government to assist Vietnam in evaluating the environmental impacts that Formosa Steel Plant was making. This petition was created in English by a person named T.N.
The Quang Binh Department of Culture – Information & Tourism reported that about 30% tourists coming to Quang Binh canceled their tours and hotel bookings at hotels along the beach in Dong Hoi city during the holiday 30/4-1/5. All restaurants along the beach suffered from slow business due to the fish death.
The first press conference about the fish death crisis was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. in Ha Noi to announce the cause. However, the press conference was called off, while hundreds of reporters were still waiting outside.
Finally, around 8 p.m., the press conference began and was chaired by the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Mr. Vo Tuan Nhan. The MONRE considered two possible causes of the mass fish death: “One cause could be toxic chemicals discharged from human activities on land and in the sea. The second cause could be an abnormal natural phenomenon, in combination with human impact, which leads to the algal bloom, or red tide as it is commonly known around the world.”
Mr. Vo Tuan Nhan also said: “Up to now, through inspection and collection of evidence, we have not been able to infer the relationship between Formosa’s plants and the mass fish death.” 
A female reporter raised a question about heavy metals found in seawater, according to the report prepared by the Thua Thien-Hue Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and the coming tourist season. Deputy Minister Vo Tuan Nhan interrupted her: “Don’t ask that question. That question damages our country.”
The press conference only lasted for 10 minutes and did not provide sufficient information for hundreds of reporters. It disappointed many people.
Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha and local authorities and scientists had a working session at the FHS. After that, he told the press that he would bear the responsibilities. He also said that, according to Vietnamese law (Article 101 of the Environmental Protection Law, effective since 2015), discharging waste liquid through an underground pipe is not allowed; and he would order Formosa to bring the underground pipe to the ground for monitoring. 
The MARD reported the result of water sample testing in a governmental meeting, rejecting the theory of red tide. “We can eliminate the cause of the abnormal natural phenomenon in combination with human impact to create algal bloom, which is commonly known as red tide around the world.” 
The human rights activist Truong Minh Tam, a member of the Vietnam Path Movement, was arrested by the Ha Tinh and Quang Binh police for “shooting video and taking photographs in Ky Loi commune, Ky Ha commune and Dong Yen parish” in Ky Anh commune.
Hundreds of fishermen in Canh Duong commune, Quang Trach district, Quang Binh province protested fiercely during hot noon on the 28th, 29th and 30th of April, demanding the government to expel Formosa from Vietnam and return clean sea to the people. The protest blocked traffic on National Highway 1 – the connection between the North and the South.
The Director of Da Nang Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Mr. Nguyen Dieu, and many other staffs of the Department in this city swam in the sea at Pham Van Dong beach (Son Tra district), in order to confirm that seawater in Da Nang was not polluted. Up to that point, dead fish still appeared and drifted to Da Nang seaside. 
Facebooker Chu Manh Son was arrested in Quang Trach District, Quang Binh Province by the Ha Tinh police while he was filming the demonstration on National Highway 1A using a mobile phone.
Thousands went on demonstrations in major cities such as Hanoi, Saigon, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Vung Tau. In Hai Phong, demonstrations were held with banners hung on buses.
Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan and a group of journalists went out to eat “Vung Ang seafood” to show that the sea had been free from pollution already, that patriotism meant to eat fish and take sea swimming…
The 19.00 TV newscast by Vietnam Television (VTV) relayed reportage from the ANTV (a TV channel owned by the police) announcing that the police of Ha Tinh and Quang Binh “took into custody two guys who incited people”, i.e. activists Truong Minh Tam and Chu Manh Son.
People of Nhan Trach Commune (Bo Trach District, Quang Binh Province) found a reddish brown line of about 1.5 km long, 10 m wide, running along the coastline of 5 villages, very close to the shore. Prof. and Ph.D. Nguyen Ngoc Lam of Nha Trang Oceanography Institute assumed that it might be signs of algal bloom or red tide. In the morning of the following day, May 5, the colored line disappeared. 
20:00, two Chinese-born Vietnamese citizens, Lau Nhat Phong (A Lau) and Mac Vi Luc held a sit-in on Nguyen Hue walking street of Ho Chi Minh City to raise their voice on the dead sea disaster in central Viet Nam. Just in about 10 minutes, both were captured and detained in the police station of Ben Nghe ward until dawn the next day.
Public protests continued to break up in Ha Noi, Saigon. They were brutally suppressed. In Saigon, the local government deployed strange forces, whose functions were unknown, to snatch slogans, beat and arrest protesters. Hoang My Uyen, a young woman who was carrying her child in the march, was blown up and kicked on her face. Her photo, with scratches on the face, hugging her child in a panic, provoked public indignation on the Internet. Dozens of people were arrested and held at local “social protection centers”. They were beaten, electrocuted, and locked for 2-3 days.
In Hanoi, dozens of people were also arrested and held at various police stations. However, they were released within the day.
A newspaper named “Nong thon Ngay nay” (Countryside Today) got a fine of VND 140 million for publishing two articles on the “The gioi Tiep thi” (Marketing World) magazine. The articles were titled “The people are always those left behind” and “The lament of fish.”
Paulus Nguyen Thai Hop, Bishop of Vinh Diocese, sent an open letter titled “Public letter on the catastrophic pollution of the marine environment in central Vietnam.” The Vietnam Television described the letter as “a biased depiction of the occurrence, exaggerated, causing anxiety, and using provocative language to abet the parishioners.”
The Office of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) in Bangkok proclaimed their worries about the increasing violence against the demonstrators for Vietnam’s environment.
HCMC Police gave information to the press that, “Upon investigation and collection of information, it is affirmed that the terrorist organization named Viet Tan held a crowded muster, disturbing public order in the city on May 1st and 8th.” The police also blackened Huynh Thanh Phat, a young blogger, said Phat “had two previous convictions, hometown in An Giang but wandering mainly in HCMC like a vagabond. He participated actively gathered and disturbed in a spontaneous manner.” 
In Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province, thousands of parishioners surrounded the district’s committee office, asking to carry out investigation and clarify the cause of mass fish deaths.
In Saigon, the police suppressed, breaking up every gathering at April 30 Park. Huynh Ngoc Chenh, an ex-journalist, held a sit-in by himself. He was taken a photo by a blogger and photojournalist named Bui Dzu. The photograph soon became famous, captioned “The Lonely Man”, clearly reminiscent of “The Tank Man” in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.
At the end of the day, still, a small protest broke out like a streak of lightning at An Dong market, participated by Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung (a.k.a. Miu Manh Me), Lau Nhat Phong (A Lau) and some other young people.
In Hanoi, after walking along Hoan Kiem lake for about 3 or 4 minutes, a group of about 20 youths wearing fish-shape masks was arrested by the police and civil defense force. They were soon pushed up on a bus and taken into custody for hours.
Traffic Police Squad 14 (the Hanoi Police) uncovered and seized a truck carrying about four metric tons of rotten fish en route Hanoi. 
In VTV’s talk-show “60 Open Minutes”, whose theme was “Sharing on social media, what is it for?”, MC Ta Bich Loan questioned Phan Anh, another MC, on his sharing of a clip by VTC News about an experiment on dead fish that the VTC team carried out in Vung Ang. Loan asked Phan Anh what his motive was in sharing the clip. Hong Thanh Quang, a police-background journalist, and Pham Manh Ha, a behavioral psychologist, also questioned him aggressively. The program aroused a storm of public opinion among the facebookers. The great majority of people supported Phan Anh and were indignant with Loan and Quang. After the talk-show, Phan Anh became even more famous for his words, “Don’t be silent.”
The VTC’s video clip was about an experiment in which “the fish died within only 2 minutes’ swimming in Vung Ang’ sea water”. It was broadcast on the VTC’s Evening News of April 26 and got bitterly criticized by state-owned newspapers and du luan vien (public opinion shapers), who alleged it to be “dishonest” and “misleading”.
Blogger Nguyen Chi Tuyen (a.k.a. Anh Chi) started a campaign, “To knock pans for transparency”: Everybody knocked their pans in the kitchen at a certain time to ask the government to clarify information about the cause of dead fish, and, at the same time, wrote slogans on the wall of the kitchen. The activities would be live streamed on Facebook, or filmed and replayed later.
Mai Tien Dung, Minister and Chairman of the Government Office, announced at the government’s monthly press conference that “the reason for mass fish deaths had been found but not yet made public, for it is pending counter argument”, that is they were waiting for independent consultancy, both local and international, to ensure objectivity. 
Green Trees held a protest march in Hanoi in celebration of the World Environmental Day, sending out the message of “Our future in our hands.” The protesters urged for transparency of mass fish deaths and questioned the role of the National Assembly in the crisis. The march lasted only 10 minutes before it was broken up by the police and civil defense force. The protesters were taken on buses to police stations again.
Angelina Trang Huynh, a member of the Viet Tan (Viet Nam Reform Party, an exile Vietnamese political party in the US), wrote on her Facebook page: The US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, had spoken at the briefing on June 9th at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington D.C., that he used to put forth an official expression to Hanoi’s leaders, saying that the United States could help find out the cause of fish deaths and deal with the environmental disaster, but Hanoi refused. To his knowledge, until then, some Vietnamese and US scientists still had some cooperation, but the Vietnamese government had denied any official assistance.
Quang Tri’s Department of Health issued the official document No. 549 to the local People’s Committee regarding the inspection, testing, and processing of the frozen seafood which could not be sold due to extremely toxic chemicals found in the fish following the mass fish death incident. 
Inter-branch forces of Quang Tri sealed and confiscated 25 metric tons of scads contaminated with phenol, an extremely toxic chemical, at Dung Thuoc enterprise (An Duc 3 village, Cua Tung townlet, Vinh Linh District, Quang Tri province). 
Vo Van Hung, Director of Quang Tri’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, assumed that the issuance of a certificate of offshore fishing and certificate of safe seafood were rather proper. “Issuance of such certificates is to affirm that the fish is clean, yet it does not guarantee safety.” 
Hundreds of parishioners in Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province marched on National Highway 37, starting from Phu Yen Church, to ask the government to “protect the environment, the Vietnamese race, and the country.” They also raised objection against blackening Reverend Father Paulus Nguyen Thai Hop by the Vietnam Television.
At 9:00 p.m. Hanoi time, PTS Our Island, a Taiwanese broadcast, released a TV report on the fish death disaster in central Vietnam.
The report was also posted on PTS’ YouTube video channel and translated into Vietnamese by Vietnamese activists, evoking strong emotions from the audience. That was the first time a media agency made a TV report about the desperate situation of the fishermen and protesters for environmental protection in Vietnam. Ironically the media agency was a foreign company, and even more, it was from Formosa’s homeland, Taiwan.
Tran Hong Ha, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, told the VnExpress news site that he had experienced 84 stressful days. He said: “Formosa Ha Tinh could not deny (its responsibility) as we made a list of 53 violations they committed, ranging from the defects in design and construction to poor operation.” “Phenol and cyanide are the main and direct cause of mass fish deaths. We have full data and unbiased evidence to affirm that phenol and cyanide were from the coking plant of Formosa Ha Tinh.” 
At 17:00, the government held a press conference to proclaim the cause of fish deaths: It was Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Co., Ltd. (FHS) that was the perpetrator. Chen Yuan Cheng, chairman of the company, apologized and pledged to pay VND 11,500 billion (approx. USD $500 million) as compensation.
Minister and Chairman of the Government Office Mai Tien Dung stated, “Formosa admitted its wrongdoings before the Vietnamese people and made five commitments on compensation and assistance. One should not hit a man when he is down,” “A prosecution against it is something that needs considering. The Vietnamese are naturally tolerant and generous.”
In the evening and at night, dozens of famous facebookers, including lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, etc., raised their frustrated voice to protest vehemently the government who used its discretionary power to negotiate with Formosa and accept an utterly irrelevant compensation. From urging investigation and advocating transparency, independent CSOs now changed their goals to petitioning for criminal proceedings against Formosa or its expulsion from Vietnam, “Formosa get out.”
MONRE leader Tran Hong Ha once stated that Formosa would be forced to bring the underwater waste pipe to the ground for monitoring but now toned down his voice, “The problem is not the underwater pipeline but waste water. Is the waste processed in accordance with environmental standards before it is discharged into the environment through the pipeline? Is the control over it to ensure that the waste is safe made explicit, and if there is a breakdown, what is the possible alternative for it? In case the processed waste reaches the standards, it may be discharged through the current underwater pipeline.” 
Around 3,000 people of Con Se parish, Ba Don town, Quang Binh province, which is 50 km from the Formosa, went on a march, asking the government to shut down the steel company.
The Inspectorate of Ha Tinh’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment, together with environmental police, entered the farm of Le Quang Hoa (director of Ky Anh Urban Environment Company) in Ky Trinh Ward, Ky Anh town, to examine its operation. Over 100 tonnes of waste from Formosa was found illegally buried underground.
Mr. Hoa explained to Tuoi Tre newspaper that the 100 tonnes were domestic waste of the plant, “It is normal mud, not hazardous waste. It is from some waste treatment stations inside Formosa.” 
Although Ky Anh Urban Environment Company was not the unit to deal with industrial waste, it had before signed a processing contract with Formosa.
Liberty Times Net, a Taiwanese website, reported that on July 11, Fu Yuan Hong, Deputy Chairman of Formosa Chemicals and Fibre Corporation, provided data to reverse and deny the investigative conclusion by the Vietnamese government. Hong’s act was commonly understood as “retracting the statement.” 
Upstream dams near Formosa’s waste landfill site in Ky Anh district suddenly discharged a great amount of water, which was thought to be at Formosa’s request. Local people suspected that such discharge was to destroy the evidence of buried waste. 
The Radio Free Asia (RFA) published results of the first independent test on fish in central Viet Nam. Nguyen Anh Tuan, a pharmacist in Hanoi, who did the test in late June in Quang Ngan commune, Quang Dien District, Thua Thien Hue Province, reported that every index for the scad was below safety standard, or that the scad contained cyanide, phenol, asen, cadmium, and lead. The cuttlefish was contaminated with phenol, a poison not allowed in food.
This independent test, he said, meant that the state should immediately provide a list of the toxic chemicals that caused massive fish deaths and use it as a base to thoroughly and precisely assess the quality of marine products, thereby find ways to help fishermen with their livelihood, to ensure food safety and protect consumers.
Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Chairwoman of the Vietnam National Assembly, presided the first press conference one day after taking office. She said the National Assembly would supervise and monitor closely the case of Formosa, and she would personally meet Vo Kim Cu (former secretary of the party cell and chairman of Ha Tinh province, currently a deputy of the 14th National Assembly) for a warning. However, with regard to the protection of national sovereignty, she said, “A number of organizations and individuals raised their voice to call upon the people to do something, but what have they done for the country? Nothing yet.”
Vo Kim Cu confirmed with the Tuoi Tre that the issuance of the 70-year investment license to Formosa is in accordance with the laws.
“On the assessment of the project, there were opinions of 12 concerned ministries, including the offices of interior section, national defense, and security… Then it was reported to the government and it was agreed that Ha Tinh would grant the license. The legal basis for the 70-year land lease for Formosa includes the Investment Law, Land Law, Decision No. 72 and Decree No. 108 by the government, as well as other legal documents regulating foreign direct investment. The 70-year investment license is (also) based on Article 36 of the Investment Law, which deals with investment projects of large size, slow capital recovery, meeting the criteria to encourage investment in sectors such as steel, seaports, electricity, and with employment of 5,000 workers and above. The project of Formosa met all the four criteria, so the license issuance is in accordance with the laws.” 
Green Trees sent a petition to dismiss Vo Kim Cu from his deputy title for his violations of law when signing a document beyond his authority, slackening control, giving Formosa full powers to cause a lot of faults which lead to the environmental disaster. The petition was submitted to Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Chairwoman of the National Assembly, and the Standing Committee of the National Assembly as well, but there was no feedback.
Su Chih Fen, a Taiwanese congresswoman, member of the Democratic Progressive Party, had her passport confiscated and was detained at Noi Bai International Airport for nine hours while she was leading a delegation to Vietnam to inspect FHS. Vietnamese state-owned newspapers published a piece of news that there was a Taiwanese congresswoman going to Ha Tinh to inspect FHS, without mentioning the fact that she was blocked at the airport by the MPS and prevented from doing entry procedures. Thanks to the help of Nguyen Anh Tuan, a civil society activist, together with numerous local people, Su managed, at last, to get to Ha Tinh (with stringent limits), accompanied by two victims of the Formosa disaster the next day, August 2.
Thousands of parishioners in Dong Yen parish, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh province went on a march to call for environmental protection, “Clean environment, clean conscience, and clean morality.” The march got to the main gate of FHS. The police, especially mobile ones, were deployed in great number to defend the corporation.
Over 4,000 parishioners of Quy Hoa parish, also in Ky Anh District, Ha Tinh Province took a march from the church to the district people’s committee, asking for the local government’s transparency of compensation to fishermen.
The parishioners of Quy Hoa continued to march.
In Dong Ha City (Quang Tri Province), in the morning, the MONRE and Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology held a conference to review the assessment results of the current state of the marine environment of the four provinces (Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien – Hue). Tran Hong Ha, Minister of MONRE, asserted, “Nearly all the waters in central Vietnam are safe.” He said it is now safe to swim and raise aquaculture, and that there are only some areas 15 km from the coastline, such as Son Duong, east of Nhat Le sea, Son Tra… that need more monitoring on the safety level.
At noon, Mr. Ha together with more than ten leaders of the central provinces went swimming at Cua Viet beach and ate seafood at a restaurant in the area.
Nguyen Thanh Phong, Head of Department of Food Safety and Hygiene (Ministry of Health), said to the VnExpress that “Even if the environment were restored and the seawater gained standard requirements for swimming, it would not be sure that the seafood will be safe to eat,” “The result of observation on phenol and cyanide is for reference, with the MONRE to assess the pollution of marine environment, not the basic data on which food safety level is rated.” 
Approximately 2,000 people in Ky Ha (Ky Anh, Ha Tinh) held a peaceful rally to urge the government to expel Formosa and end its operation in Vietnam. The local authorities sent in police forces accompanied by propaganda bandwagons, but these forces were unable to disperse the rally.
At midday, local authorities agreed to meet some representatives of the protesters. The meeting, held at the Ky Anh People’s Committee office, was fruitless: the local government said they had no jurisdiction in the case; it’s the central government’s business. Moreover, they denied recognizing the disaster as an environmental disaster, insisting that it was “an environmental incident” only. Obviously, this was a euphemism to make the disaster more acceptable to the public.
Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop of the Vinh diocese signed the establishment of the Committee for Supporting Victims of the Marine Disaster.
1,088 families in Ky Loi (Ky Anh, Ha Tinh) collectively requested to be given a compensatory payment of over 2,000 billion VND (approximately USD $80 million).
Thousands of people based in the two districts of Quynh Luu and Ky Anh in Ha Tinh province filed civil petitions against Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Co., Ltd. The Ky Anh People’s Court itself received 506 petitions demanding a compensation of 56 billion VND (nearly US$ 2.5 million).
PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc issued Decision 1880/QD-TTg on the awarding of compensation for those affected by the massive fish deaths in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue. Under this Decision, the compensation for the affected shall be calculated from April to September 2016 with funding sourced from the $500 million compensation paid by Formosa.
The Decision listed seven categories of victims: 1. seafood harvesting; 2. aquatic breeding; 3. salt production; 4. coastal seafood business activities; 5. fishing logistics; 6. coastal tourism services; and 7. seafood stockpiling and purchase.
The provincial People’s Committees of the four affected provinces shall instruct owners of vessels or owners of aquatic and salt production facilities to calculate the amount of compensation required for victims. The People’s Committees are required to review the compensation for affected victims and send their findings to MARD before October 5. MARD shall verify the compensation for each locality and report it to the Ministry of Finance before submitting it to the PM for approval before October 10, 2016.
About 13,000 people attended the biggest ever demonstration against Formosa in Ky Anh district. The protesters surrounded the steel company, holding signs demanding Formosa to get out of Vietnam. Police and army troops were deployed to protect the Taiwanese investor, who closed all its doors to the angry crowd.
At 9.30, troops were put to flight. Live video footages taken at the scene showed police and soldiers fleeing in panic. The protesters scaled walls, waving flags and banners, and chanting, “Formosa has collapsed,” “Authorities, close Formosa down for the future of our nation.” The demonstration remained peaceful, however. At midday, the crowd dispersed in an orderly and peaceful manner.
Though the crowd flocked to thousands of people in the biggest ever demonstration, state-controlled media did not mention it at all. The Thanh Nien’s website published a brief piece of news covering the event, but it was quickly removed after a few minutes. The Voice of Vietnam (VOV) and the local Ha Tinh newspaper, at the same time, reported that there was a gathering of Catholics to cause public disorder and disrupt Formosa’s operation.
Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc, leading Song Ngoc parish of the Vinh diocese, went to a local court to submit a formal request for compensation on behalf of 619 households in the three towns of Quynh Ngoc, Quynh Tho and Son Hai (Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province), which are located about 180 km from FHS. Hundreds of people in his parish joined him on the way.
Of these 619 households, nearly 400 are Catholics, the remainders are non-Catholics. The amount they demanded was VND 445,968, 380,000. Their request had been sent to the National Assembly, the government office, the Nghe An People’s Committee, and the lower-rank Quynh Luu People’s Committee.
The NA remained silent.
The Ky Anh People’s Court rejected the 506 petitions by the people from Quynh Luu and Ky Anh. Nguyen Van Thang, Chief Judge of the Ha Tinh People’s Court, said in a briefing that the petitioners had failed to prove their factual damages.
“The rejection of the petitions is pursuant to the Civil Procedural Code. Clause 5, Article 189 of the Code stipulates that a petition must be backed by proofs of the damages caused by the violation of the petitioner’s legitimate rights. Furthermore, Point C, Clause 1, Article 192 cites issues that have been resolved with a valid decision by the relevant authorities. In this case, the compensation process has been already resolved with Decision 1880/QD-TTg by the Government.”
The People’s Committee of Nghe An province urged the Bishop of Vinh Diocese to expel Priest Dang Huu Nam, who manages Phu Yen parochial and is authorized by local petitioners to represent them in the proceedings against Formosa. The local government accused Father Nam of “abetting legal actions” against Formosa and “taking advantage of religious gatherings to incite disorder”.
Green Trees, a Hanoi-based environmental organization, released its first report on the Formosa disaster, “An Overview of the Marine Life Disaster in Vietnam”. The report, clandestinely published in Vietnam, marked the hard effort of an unregistered civil society group to investigate the disaster and push for good governance and accountability. It has three versions in Vietnamese, English, and Taiwanese.
Green Trees visited the National Assembly in Hanoi to hand them 05 copies of their report on Formosa, but the group’s goodwill was treated only with vigilance and antipathy.
Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc, who manages Song Ngoc parochial, testified before the Legislative Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan about the Formosa-related disaster. On behalf of the Vinh diocese’s committee for supporting Formosa victims, he demanded the Taiwanese president and legislature to make an intervention.
Nguyen Van Hoa (b. 1995), a freelance reporter in central Vietnam, was arrested secretly by the Ha Tinh security officers. His family was not notified of his arrest until one week later.
Hoa had been very active before when he went around reporting news on the life of people in the Formosa-affected areas. He was believed to work as a correspondent for the Radio Free Asia and several Vietnamese media agencies overseas.
Thousands of fishers in Dong Yen (Ha Tinh province) demonstrated in the rain by blocking National Highway 1A with fishing nets.
A 100-meter streak of red sea water emerged near the dike protection revetment of the Vung Ang seaport, near FHS, local media reported.
Receiving no relevant feedback from the authorities, petitioners decided to sue FHS for damages and bring it to the court of Ky Anh, the place where FHS is located. They declared beforehand that they would go to the court together on February 14.
Fishers in Quang Tri expressed their concern after their gill nets were found full of strange mud, which made it difficult for them to fish.
Hundreds of Ha Tinh people blocked National Highway 1A after massive dead fish were found in the Quyen river that runs near FHS.
“Bloody Valentine’s Day” in Nghe An province. See the attached report for more detailed information.
Another streak of red sea water was found near the Son Duong seaport in Ky Anh, Ha Tinh.
In the days after, similar streaks of red bubbling sea water were reportedly seen in the seas of Quang Binh, Da Nang, and Thua Thien-Hue.
Le Quang Nam, Head of the Da Nang Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said the red water emerged in Da Nang as a result of krill shrimps laying eggs.
Fishers in Quang Trach demonstrated, blocking National Highway 1A with fishing nets.
Phan Van Thong, Head of the Thua Thien-Hue Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said the streaks of red water detected in Ha Tinh and Thua Thien-Hue were actually caused by algal bloom.
The findings by state offices did not satisfy the public, who kept asking about the cause of the red water flows and whether krill shrimps or algal bloom had caused the same phenomena in the previous years.
Public concern remained high also because the red water flows reminded the public of the disaster caused by Formosa in 2016 when “red tides” were sometimes seen in the affected seas.
MONRE published its findings which confirmed that most of the chemical substance contained in the water samples met the normal standards.
Green Trees published its independent findings, according to which the water in Ha Tinh seas contained phenol, a poisonous chemical compound, at 56 times higher than standard.
Bach Hong Quyen (b. 1988) and Hoang Duc Binh (b. 1983), two active activists who assisted the Formosa victims in Nghe An and Ha Tinh to claim compensations, went to a café near Trung Nghia church (Loc Ha district of Ha Tinh province) at 9pm, where they met a group of local police. The two sides clashed and Giap, one of the police, drew his gun and shot into the air. Quyen and Binh ran to the church asking for help.
Subsequently, hundreds of police were deployed to the church, and Catholics in the area quickly came to support Priest Nguyen Cong Binh and the two activists.
A violent clash broke out between the police and the Catholics, with some people of both sides injured. After the police retreated, the Catholics, in preparation for a planned rally the next day, decided to make additional placards that read, “objections to the police shooting civilians.”
Thousands of people, mostly Catholics, walked to the local People’s Committee of the Loc Ha district to demand relevant compensations for the Formosa victims and to protest at police violence. At 9 am, they managed to occupy the office of the Committee while local officials and their staffs fled.
In response, Hanoi and Ha Tinh sent in thousands of task force police to surround the area and stamp out the demonstration. A Ha Tinh police officer, Nguyen Bao Trung, in plainclothes, mixed himself in the crowd and threw stones at some local officials in an attempt to trump up a charge against the demonstrators. But the plot was uncovered by the demonstrators, who held Trung down until the end of the day. No more violence was reported, but government-sponsored media described the incidence as utter public chaos and resistance of law enforcement officials. (Initially, they denied that Trung was a police officer but finally admitted that he was a police performing official duties).
Environmental activist Le My Hanh was attacked by a group of government supporters when she was taking a walk around West Lake in Hanoi. Her companion, teacher Trinh Dinh Hoa, was also beaten up and had his glasses broken, causing his nose to bleed.
Le My Hanh was in Ha Tinh days before and she was filming a lot on some protest rallies by the Catholics in Dong Yen parochial. Her video clips, posted live to Facebook, reached a large audience.
Nguyen Van Hoa was charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the State’s interests” under Article 258 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, the Ha Tinh Newspaper reported. Though Hoa had been in jail since January, only three months later was he officially charged. This means Hoa may have been arbitrarily detained.
The Ha Tinh Newspaper’s website published a piece of news reporting that Nguyen Van Hoa, the 22-year-old activist arrested in January, had “admitted guilt”. Attached to the news was a video footage in which Hoa was filmed reading a confession, admitting that he had “conducted propaganda, abetted demonstrations, incited public disorder, and defamed the Party and the State.” He was also made to call on people not to criticize the state and the party’s policies.
The biking tour held by the Green Trees on the first anniversary of the massive fish deaths was suppressed by Hanoi police and security forces. Around 20 members of the group were arrested by the police who simply labeled them as “anti-state agitators”. Political repression continued in the following days when the police kept exerting pressure on employers and families of the activists to isolate them from the community.
Two young Saigon-based activists, Huynh Thanh Phat (b. 1999) and Tran Hoang Phuc (b. 1995) were kidnapped and assaulted by a group of thugs, possibly plainclothes police after they visited Con Se parochia in Quang Binh province during their trip from Hanoi back to Saigon. Two months later, Tran Hoang Phuc was arrested by the Hanoi security officers on June 29. On July 3, his family was notified by these officers that he was charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Penal Code.
Environmental rights defender Le My Hanh was once again violently attacked at a friend’s residence in HCMC by a group of five individuals believed to be government loyalists. Two of her friends were also assaulted. One of the attackers filmed and posted the video of the attack on his Facebook page with a threatening message.
Though Hanh and her supporters tried many ways to bring the matter to court, their efforts failed and proved the fact that all violent attacks against peaceful activists are never investigated in obvious criminal cover-up by the police to protect the regime supporters.
The Ha Tinh police issued a wanted warrant for Bach Hong Quyen, charging him with inciting public disorder and chaos in Ha Tinh on April 3, under Article 245 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. The warrant was signed by Tran Hai Trung, Deputy Chief of the Ha Tinh Investigating Police. Quyen fled from Vietnam with the help of many of his supporters nationwide.
The Nghe An police stopped Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc’s car on his way from Song Ngoc parochia, and abducted Hoang Duc Binh, who was accompanying Father Thuc in the car. Hundreds of local Catholics quickly got to the area to protest at the arbitrary detention and call for Binh’s immediate release. An arrest warrant was only issued against him hours later when the police tried to disperse the gathering.
Earlier Binh, a member of the Viet Labour Movement, had been very active and vocal in protecting the rights of local people in the disaster-affected area. He now faces three charges: “inciting public disorder”, “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties”, and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the state’s interest.”
The Tra Vinh People’s Committee said in an official statement that they would revoke the award granted last year to the painting “Dead Sea” by artist Nguyen Nhan. They also said they would confiscate the painting and impose a sanction against the artist. “Dead Sea” depicted a woman fisher sitting on the sand beach, surrounded by plenty of dead fish.
Blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (a.k.a. Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom) was sentenced by the Khanh Hoa People’s Court to ten years of imprisonment for “conducting propaganda against the state”. The evidence of guilt against her included a hand-made placard calling for government transparency and demanding the prosecution of Formosa.
Activist Nguyen Viet Dung (a.k.a. Dung Phi Ho, b. 1986) was abducted by a group of police when he was taking lunch outside of Song Ngoc church (Nghe An province). The police later told his family that he was arrested for “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Penal Code.
At the same time, activist Tran Minh Nhat faced being hunted nationwide. A wanted warrant was issued against him back in July, but he was not yet known about it until late September. Both Dung and Nhat had been very active in supporting the Formosa victims in their legal fight for relevant compensation, and they had spent much of the time working in the affected area in central Vietnam.
 Ngo Tuan, “People in distress due to mass fish deaths for unclear reason”, Ha Tinh newspaper, April 8, 2016:
 Lam Chi Cong – Quang Dai, “Fish death catastrophe along the Central coast: A journey of 85 days to search for the cause and perpetrator”, Lao Dong (The Laborer), June 30, 2016.
 S. Lam – M. Huyen, “Collecting dead fish along the coast, preventing pollution”, Cong an Nhan dan (The People’s Police) newspaper.
 Tuan Nghia, “Fish died en mass in Vung Ang sea due to water pollution”, Ha Tinh newspaper, April 13, 2016.
 Duy Tuan – Hai Sam – Quang Thanh, “Vung Ang dead fish whiten the Central Coast, suspected cause is intoxication from Vung Ang”, VietNamNet, April 20, 2016. This article is no longer available on the Internet.
 Dac Duc, “Sea fish died in 4 Central provinces”, VnExpress, April 20, 2016.
 Kien Trung – Bao Han, “About fish deaths: ‘We can’t inspect Vung Ang industrial zone’’”, VietNamNet, April 21, 2016.
 Hoang Phuc, “Almost 200 people poisoned after eating seafood ‘suspected’ of being intoxicated”, Nguoi Lao Dong, April 22, 2016.
 “Investigation on environmental law implementation at Formosa”, Tuoi Tre, April 23, 2016:
 Xuan Sinh, “General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited and worked in Ha Tinh”, Dan Tri (People’s Knowledge), April 22, 2016.
 Van Thanh – Tran Loc, “Ha Tinh Vice-Chair: Rest assured, you can eat fish and swim in Vung Ang”, Giao Thong (Transportation) newspaper, April 23, 2016.
 “Formosa representative: ‘Want to catch fish and shrimp or want a plant, make a choice!”, Tuoi Tre, April 25, 2016.
 Nhat Linh, “Fish died in Thua Thien Hue due to heavy metals in seawater”, Tuoi Tre, April 26, 2016.
 The Internet version has been revised to “Sea is now clearer, fishermen strive to restore production”, Ha Tinh newspaper, April 26, 2016.
 “No evidence of Formosa’s involvement”, BBC Vietnamese, April 27, 2016:
 Van Dinh, “Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha: I admit my shortcoming”, Tuoi Tre, April 28, 2016.
 Xuan Long, “Minister Tran Hong Ha forces Formosa to bring up discharge pipe”, Tuoi Tre, April 30, 2016.
“Red tide rejected as a cause”, BBC Vietnamese, April 28, 2016.
 Nguyen Dong, “A number of key staffs in Da Nang swim in the sea to disprove rumor”, VnExpress, April 30, 2016.
 Hoang Tao – Hoang Phuong, “Reddish brown line appears close to Quang Binh shore”, VnExpress, May 4, 2016.
 Vien Su, “Viet Tan incites public disorder, taking advantage of the fish death incident”, Tuoi Tre, May 14, 2016.
 Huy Nam, “Truck filled with 4 tons of dead fish caught running to Hanoi”, VnMedia, May 24, 2016:
 K. Hung – Le Thanh, “We have found the cause of the fish deaths, but not publicized yet to wait for counter argument”, Tuoi Tre, June 2, 2016: http://tuoitre.vn/tin/chinh-tri-xa-hoi/moi-truong/20160602/ba-bo-truong-tham-gia-hop-bao-quanh-vu-ca-chet/1111879.html
 Nguyen Vuong, “What does the local government say about the 25 tons of fish containing phenol?”, VTCNews, June 12, 2016.
 Pham Hieu – Vo Van Thanh, “‘I’ve experienced 84 stressful days’, said Minister Tran Hong Ha”, VnExpress, June 30, 2016.
 Tuan Anh – Manh Quan, “Following the Formosa disaster, many major issues need addressing”, Dan Tri, July 4, 2016.
 Van Dinh, “100 tons of Formosa’s wastes found buried in a farm director’s garden”, Tuoi Tre, July 12, 2016.
 Available in Taiwanese.
 “Water discharge near the processing site under Formosa’s request”, Doi song & Phap luat (Life & Law), July 14, 2016.
 Vien Su, “Formosa would have created huge revenues had the incident not occurred, said Mr. Vo Kim Cu”, Tuoi Tre, July 24, 2016.
 Nam Phuong, “That the sea is clean enough for swimming does not guarantee the fish are safe to eat, said the Ministry of Health”, VnExpress, August 25, 2016.
Wrongfully Convicted Ho Duy Hai Languishes on Death Row
During these last days of 2017, be it rain or shine, people in Ha Noi, Vietnam, could often spot a frail, weary middle-aged woman holding up a sign “Do Not Kill My Innocent Son, Ho Duy Hai” near the government’s headquarters.
She is death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai’s mother, Nguyen Thi Loan.
Since Hai’s conviction in 2008, Ms. Loan has begun her own crusade to petition for his release. In the past few years, she especially traveled more often to Ha Noi where the central government is located to raise awareness of Hai’s case because time might be running out for him.
Ho Duy Hai’s execution was halted once in December 2014 due to public outcry, but recently, local authorities had expressed their impatience for having to continue keeping him on death row.
On December 7, 2017, at a meeting of the People’s Committee of Long An Province, Dinh Van Sang – Prosecutorial General of the People’s Procuracy of Long An Province had suggested that the execution of Ho Duy Hai should be carried out as soon as possible because “the imprisonment of this kind (of prisoners) would be too burdensome (for the government).”
It often goes without exception in the majority of jurisdiction, that one shall not be convicted based solely on his or her confessions.
The criminal law principle of corpus delicti requires a higher burden of evidence from the prosecution and provides that a defendant’s confession – on its own – is not enough for a conviction.
Having credible physical evidence from the prosecution then becomes the determining factor in convincing a jury or a judge, that the government has satisfied the burden of proof and that they have proved the defendant was, in fact, guilty of the crime charged.
Vietnam follows this general rule in prosecuting criminal cases.
Yet, such a rule only exists in law books and legal codes.
In practice, people not only got convicted solely on their confessions but very often, they confessed because they were beaten and tortured by the investigating officers.
Ho Duy Hai was one of them.
In March 2008, Hai – a then 23-year-old recent graduate from Long An Province located in the Mekong Delta south of Sai Gon – was arrested, charged and convicted of double homicide and sentenced to death.
The only evidence used to convict him was practically his confession, which he later recanted and revealed that he was forced to confess by the police during his detention.
The prosecution not only did not offer any credible physical evidence, they even committed basic prosecutorial mistakes.
The time of death was never established for the two victims, making it impossible for the defendant to come up with an alibi.
The murder weapons were “lost” by the forensic team and other items were later “purchased” a local market by witnesses who vouched for their similarities if compared to the real ones.
None of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched Ho Duy Hai’s.
A special team of legal experts set up by the Vietnamese National Assembly and led by the current Commissioner of the National Assembly’s Judiciary Committee – Le Thi Nga – visited Hai in the end of December 2014 after his family successfully used social media campaign to halt his execution (which was set to be carried out earlier that month).
The report signed by Ms. Le Thi Nga in February 2015, found that Hai’s case was riddled with irregularities and prosecutorial mistakes and that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to support a conviction. It also called for a trial of cassation for Hai.
2018 will be three years since the government’s legal experts concluded that Hai’s case deserved a review and ten years since Hai’s life as a free man ceased to exist, yet it seems as if the legal obstacles have stacked even higher against him.
Hai remains in prison, his youthful years waste away with each day spent on death row.
With the assistance of a local artist, Thinh Nguyen, Ms. Loan and other parents of wrongfully convicted death-row inmates appeared in several video clips to raise public awareness on the reality of forced confessions and prosecutorial irregularities in Vietnam’s criminal cases.
And even though the videos are well-received, it seems as if these efforts are to no avail, at least for the time being.
His mother has also written thousands of petitions pleading the government to not kill her innocent son, and she would talk to anyone – be it the personnel from foreign embassies or just about any passerby on the streets – whoever would spare a few minutes listening to her telling the story of Hai’s wrongful conviction.
Her hope is that one day, not only the people will stop and listen to her, but so will government officials and that they will take up Hai’s case and declare him a free man.
Vietnam: Increasing Cyber Attacks on Activists Portray A Shrinking Internet Freedom
During the last week of November and in early December 2017, many of the independent media websites in Vietnam reported that access to their sites had been blocked. This includes The Vietnamese. Readers confirmed they could not access the attacked sites unless they installed VPN to get over the firewalls.
Another independent news project also runs by The Vietnamese’s editorial board, Luat Khoa online legal magazine, was also blocked in Vietnam starting around December 4, 2017. Luat Khoa has been in operation for the past three years with over 90k likes on Facebook and an average of 500,000 pageviews per month. This is the first time Luat Khoa gets blocked in the country.
In a more severe case, on December 5, 2017, Dan Luan – another well-known independent site – shared on Facebook that their website was under DDoS attack for about a week in late November. A DDos attack is defined as “an attempt to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources”.
Earlier last month, there were also failed attempts trying to inject Dan Luan’s website with malicious scripts via Cross-Site Scripting (XSS). Dan Luan frequently suffered cyber attacks, which they believed were the works of government-controlled hackers.
Also in November 2017, a handful of popular Facebookers lost access to their accounts because they were reported by anonymous users to Facebook for violations of community standards. Among them was blogger Nguoi Buon Gio, who now lives in exile in Germany.
It seems quite likely that the Vietnamese government would rely on cyber attacks as an important tactic for oppression in recent years when the numbers of Internet and social media users increased dramatically in the country.
In July 2017, We Are Social, a social media marketing and advertising reported Vietnam had surpassed Thailand to become the 7th country with the most Facebook users worldwide.
The government has not exactly been shy in expressing the desire to tighten their grip on controlling the virtual world. As previously reported, Vietnam claimed to have worked with Facebook and Google to remove thousands of videos and accounts that allegedly contained anti-state materials.
Earlier this year, in May 2017, Gen. Nguyen Danh Cong of the Ministry of Public Security stated during an intra-departmental meeting, that the MPS had successfully blocked thousands of websites which they deemed to be anti-state and reactionary contents.
Four years before that, on May 5, 2010, Gen. Vu Hai Trieu, the then Deputy Director of the MPS, announced: “Our technical departments have destroyed 300 Internet web pages and blogs posting unsuitable contents.”
Coincidentally, it was in early November 2017 that the Washington D.C.-based cybersecurity firm, Volexity, issued a report, confirming it has been – since May 2017 – monitoring an active operation of mass surveillance and cyber attacks operating out of Vietnam.
This operation includes the maintenance of an active group of hackers whose mission is to target Vietnamese activists and dissidents, as well as foreign citizens, corporations, and governments with interests in Vietnam.
It was not the first time that the international cybersecurity community had warned about hackers who seemed to have had a close tie with the Vietnamese government. In the past three years, besides Volexity, at least two other organizations, Electronic Frontier Foundation and FireEye, had issued similar reports.
Vietnam’s government is believed to have been maintaining a cyber espionage group calls OceanLotus since at least 2014. OceanLotus (or SeaLotus) is also known as APT-C-00 or APT32 according to these organizations.
There was also other information leading people to believe that OceanLotus was related to the hacker group Sinh Tu Lenh.
Sinh Tu Lenh became famous among Vietnamese cyber community about a decade ago when it was named as the party responsible for the numerous cyber attacks, aiming at dissidents, activists, and independent news sites, including Dan Luan, Talawas, Xcafevn, Anh Ba Sam, and Mother Mushroom.
Also recently, on November 14, 2017, Freedom House issued its Freedom on the Net report and named 30 countries where the government paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda. Vietnam was one of them.
According to Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House: “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”
The report also quoted Sanjia Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project: “Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda.”
“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”
But activists in Vietnam are not new to this form of government’s suppression. Back in 2014, our editorial board’s member, Pham Doan Trang, had met with Google and Facebook representatives in the U.S. where she forwarned them about the daily attacks these “paid opinion shapers” had fired at activists and bloggers in Vietnam and how such conducts affected democracy movement.
During the summer of 2014 alone, over 40 accounts of activists were reported, and in turn, got shut down by Facebook.
Calling themselves the government’s “cyber army forces”, these online bots repeatedly reported activists and bloggers’ Facebook accounts, effectively causing their shut-downs.
Taking advantages of Facebook’s loosely defined rules and standards of conducts for the users’ community, the troop of “opinion shapers” would abuse the Facebook’s “Report Abuse Button” with thousands of reports a day on a specifically targeted activist’s account.
Yet, to date, it seems that the activists and the democracy movement have proven their potential sustainability in Vietnam, because people are still actively promoting their causes and Facebook continues to be the main platform for advancing social changes, despite all odds.
Back in March 2015, facing the city government’s immediate decision to cut down some 6,700 trees in Hanoi, activists created a Facebook group and organized people for peaceful protests. They were able to mobilize residents of Hanoi and successfully stopped the city government from going forward with the plan.
In 2016, Facebook again proved its effectiveness, as it was one of the best platforms for informing the public about the Formosa environmental disaster in Central Vietnam. During the height of the weeks-long protests against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Plant – the company responsible for causing the pollution – access to Facebook was blocked on a few weekends. But its popularity among the general public had caused the government to undo such decision almost immediately.
This year, in the recent months, drivers who were passing through a BOT toll in Cai Lay Ward, Tien Giang Province have been protesting the improper location of said toll. Their acts of civil disobedience – through various forms of slowing down the process of paying toll fees and causing the toll to close down – were followed closely by the public on Facebook and other social media platforms.
To protect themselves and fight back, Vietnamese activists have received technical assistance from organizations, such as Access Now, when they got reported by the government’s bots on Facebook or got struck by some other forms of cyber attacks.
In the meanwhile, the Draft Law on Cybersecurity – which mirrored that of China – is now waiting for the National Assembly’s approval.
And as such, the battle in the cyber world continues.
Vietnam: Activists Refuse to Engage in Government’s Cat-and-Mouse Game
Around noon on November 16, 2017, journalist Pham Doan Trang, a member of our editorial board, found herself stuffed in a car driven by plained-clothes police, some of whom she might have recognized from the dozen of times they have come and kidnapped her in broad daylight before.
Just less than half an hour earlier, she was an invited guest of the EU delegation at the swanky Lotte Building in Hanoi, Vietnam, together with Dr. Nguyen Quang A and two other activists, Nguyen Chi Tuyen and Bui Thi Minh Hang.
All of them, except for Nguyen Chi Tuyen who managed to avoid police detection, was kidnapped by the authorities almost immediately after they left the EU meeting. It was the latest episode in a ludicrous game of cat and mouse that the Vietnamese government had orchestrated for years.
While telling his Facebook friends about his experiences on November 16, 2017, where he was detained illegally and interrogated for five hours, the prominent pro-democracy intellect, Dr. A, also recalled that the police had done this to him 14 times just between last year and now. They also guarded and surveilled his home heavily, as well as almost followed him around all the time.
Doan Trang alone has been taken against her own will to various police stations for interrogation a few times just this year, sometimes for the entire day. This last one on November 16 was for 12 hours, which ended when police drove her home around midnight.
But she was not even certain that night if they were going to actually release her until the car stopped at her house.
Because “the police like ‘the surprise factor'”, she said. “They would love to terrify you and make it impossible for you to expect what was going to happen next. They rule by fear and instilling fear in you is their favorite job. You just have to learn how to become fearless.”
Fearless, determined, and completely devoted to the democracy movement in Vietnam would be the words to describe the woman many people view as one of the leading activists in Vietnam, journalist Pham Doan Trang.
Last year, during Barrack Obama’s May 2017 visit to the country, Doan Trang and Dr. A were also kidnapped by the authorities to prevent them from attending a meeting which was specially arranged by the Obama administration, so that the U.S. president could meet Vietnam’s independent civil society’s representatives.
For Doan Trang, in trying to make it to the meeting with Obama, she had to travel thousands of kilometers by car while still recuperating from a knees surgery. Her fellow activists had to accompany her, and one of them even also assumed the role of her personal nurse because Doan Trang was too weak to take care of herself. All the while, the group had to lay low and went under the radar so that they could avoid police detection.
Her knees injuries also came from the police who had crushed them while breaking up a peaceful march in 2015. Doan Trang and hundreds of other residents of Hanoi were protesting against the city government’s decision to cut down some 6,700 trees.
Back to the morning of May 24, 2016, despite their efforts to divert police attention, secret agents eventually caught up with Doan Trang’s group and found them at a motel about 100 km away from Hanoi, just a couple of hours before the meeting with Obama was supposed to start.
They were all illegally detained and interrogated, and Doan Trang was held in her motel room until those who were guarding her received confirmation that the Obama meeting was long over. Only then they would let her and her friends go.
Dr. A also received similar treatment. The police came to his neighborhood early that day in May 2016, around 6:00 A.M., and snatched him away. They confiscated his electronic devices, stuffed him in their car, and drove him around Hanoi and other local proximities like Hung Yen. After receiving confirmation that Obama had boarded his plane from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, they took Dr. A back to his home and released him around 1:00 P.M. the same day.
Neatly placed name cards left on the meeting table without the faces to match, and their empty chairs during the entire discussion vividly displayed the life of dissidents in Vietnam: The authorities do not hesitate to use whatever available means to subdue their bodies and silence their voices.
And on that day, it particularly seemed as if no single world leader could change such fact, not even the U.S. president.
Things did not change for the better this year either.
Before and during President Trump’s visit to Vietnam earlier this month, dissidents and activists like Dr. A and Doan Trang had reported that they were surveilled and followed by both police and plain-clothes officers. Some said they were even prevented from leaving their houses on certain days when world leaders – like Donald Trump and Xi Jinping – were in town.
So when it came to those events surrounding the kidnapping on November 16, the Vietnamese activists’ community was not exactly taken by surprise. However, because living under such oppression has become a way of life, it also prompted a quick response from them. Civil society organizations were not silenced, instead, they immediately condemned the authorities’ conducts.
Without any probable cause, no arrest warrant, the forceful taking of individual citizens into police custody violates even Vietnam’s own criminal procedures, leave alone international legal norms and practices.
Worse, this has been a routine violation.
Back in December 2015, dissident attorney Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Le Thu Ha were taken into police custody and had been held without trials ever since.
In July 2016, dissidents Nguyen Bac Truyen, Truong Minh Duc, and Pham Van Troi were also taken into custody and later charged with Article 79 of the Penal Code for subversion against the State, together with previously arrested Dai and Ha.
Doan Trang said no one in Vietnam could really tell for sure each time an activist got snatched by the police, that whether it would be just for a few hours of questioning, or the government would press charges and put someone away for a couple of years.
Her take is to treat today as if it would be the last day she could still be a free person and try to make the most of it.
In a country like Vietnam, she said, there would always be so much to do and so much more needed to get done. And getting things done she did.
Doan Trang came to the EU meeting with an updated report on the Formosa environmental disaster, a new report on Vietnam’s Laws on Religion, and an update on the overall human rights situation in the country. She collaborated with others on these projects in 2017, and at the same time, published a book on introduction to politics. All were done while she still had not fully recovered from last year’s knees surgery and constantly been harassed by the authorities.
So perhaps, now is also the time that the Vietnamese authorities must stop playing this insipid game of catch and release.
It was like child-play, Doan Trang described her encounter with the police officers on November 16 on her Facebook status following her release.
The EU delegation initiated this meeting with members of civil society organizations and held it right before their annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam (which will supposedly happen later in December this year). The delegation wished to consult the civil society actors on issues regarding the country’s environment, labor rights, and the overall human rights situation, pending their ongoing EVFTA (EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement) negotiations with Vietnam.
Ironically, all the while the EU delegation were wishing they could learn more about how Vietnam has been implementing human rights, the activists’ illegal arrest and detention happened right under their nose.
The police grabbed these activists as they were leaving the building where the meeting took place. It seems as if the Vietnamese authorities could not wait to put their hands on the nation’s most valuable prizes in trade negotiations with foreign governments.
But to Doan Trang and many of her fellow activists, being viewed as some prized pawns that Vietnam could use to exchange for economic interests, like trade agreements, undermines their cause.
And they refuse to be treated as such.
Rather, Doan Trang wishes the international community views her numerous arrests and others’ arrests and imprisonment during the past three years since she came back to Vietnam (after finishing her fellowship at the University of Southern California), as glaring evidence that the country is still ruled by a one-party dictatorship.
Only by seeing the Vietnamese regime for what it is and not giving it the presumed legitimacy of a democratic government, one that respects human rights and the rule of law, then foreign governments – like the EU – could truly press Vietnam on matters like respecting the people’s will and peaceful democratization process.
No one likes to see this cat-and-mouse game with the police to continue, except for the authorities themselves.
This is how Doan Trang hopes the world would react to the Vietnamese activists’ arrests and imprisonment: Do not request Vietnamese authorities to release one or two activists on an individual basis for humanitarian reasons.
Instead, the international community should call them out on their totalitarian characteristics, their disastrous human rights records, and inform them that their methods of oppressing dissidents and the democracy movement render them an illegitimate regime.
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