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Human Rights

Trần Thúy Nga – The Story of A Grassroots Human Rights Defender in Vietnam

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Tran Thuy Nga. Photo credits: SBTN.

She came from a poor family in rural areas of North of Vietnam, married young at nineteen years old and soon had children of her own.

Growing up, she did not have good opportunities for schooling.

As a young girl, her mother passed away when she was ten, and her father could not afford to continue sending her to school. Thus after seventh grade, she began working and helped taking care of her younger siblings.

Her first marriage ended quickly. Her husband was abusive, he beat her, and did so very often.

She left him and became a single mother with two young children to bring up while not having a job.

Like many other people around her, she never heard of things like human rights.

Like them, she was too busy finding means to feed herself and her family.

But less than two decades later, she became a person who not only knows about human rights but also makes it her life mission to defend them.

Her name is Trần Thị Nga, who also goes by her blogger name Tran Thuy Nga.

The road to becoming a human rights defender for Nga was influenced by her own life experiences.

After divorcing her first husband and returning to her hometown with her two children, she began a new chapter in life with 5kg of rice borrowed from a cousin.

She used half of the borrowed rice to cook porridge for her starving kids and turned the rest into rice flour to make steam rice rolls, selling them to the neighbors and make a profit of fewer than 1 USD a day. With that, she was able to support her children and herself for a while.

She soon realized she could not raise her children by just selling steamed rice rolls, so she borrowed some money and applied to go to Taiwan as a migrant worker.

Unfortunately, Nga got injured almost immediately after she arrived and began working. Alone in a strange country and unable to receive compensation for the injuries, she again became desperate about the future.

However, with the help of a Vietnamese priest over there, Nga was able to negotiate a settlement with her previous employer for her work-related injuries.

Her life took a totally different turn from that point as she later told her friends, the best thing she had received from that experience was not money, but learning how to fight for one’s own rights and stand up against injustice.

Returning home around 2008, Nga slowly went on a path that turned her into a human rights defender.

She joined the protests against China’s aggression in the summer of 2011, which was a turning point for the independent civil society movement in Vietnam.

She stood with land-grabs victims in Hanoi and assisted the family of death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai in their fight for Hai’s release.

Wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress and a bright smile on her face, Nga also was one of the faces that stood out during the march against the government’s decision to cut down more than 6,700 trees in Hanoi in the spring of 2015.

Her neighbors now remember her fondly as someone who would always stand up for them against the police’s wrongdoings.

But she pays a heavy price for standing up for others and against the government’s wrongs.

Nga was arrested in late January 2017, just a few days before Tet – the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. And two days before Christmas 2017, in a one-day appeal trial, the government affirmed her conviction and the 9 years imprisonment sentencing.

But long before the 2017 arrest and trial, her children and she had been a victim of police abuse many times. Their house was vandalized and her leg was broken when plainclothes police attacked her with metal rods a few years back.

Nevertheless, the year 2017 was especially challenging to those who work as human rights activists in Vietnam. The government seemed to have increased its oppression with over 20 individual cases of activists being arrested and charged with anti-state crimes which carry long and harsh sentencing.

Mother Mushroom aka Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh and Trần Thúy Nga are among those who targeted by the recent government’s crackdown.

Both were bloggers who spoke about social injustice like Formosa environmental disaster and police brutality on social media like Facebook and Youtube.

Both are mothers with young children.

And yet they both received some of the harshest sentences handed out to dissidents in recent years. They were both tried in 2017 and got sentenced to 10 years and 9 years imprisonment, respectively, for propaganda against the state under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Recently, the government has ordered to have them relocate to prison centers that are hundreds of miles away from their hometowns, which also means it may be impossible for their young children to visit them. In February 2018 and right before the Vietnamese New Year – Tết, a group of Vietnamese activists pleaded with both Nga and Quỳnh in a public petition that they should consider seeking political asylum for the sake of their children. Both have been unwavering.

And while Tran Thuy Nga may not be the type of activists that is looked upon as leading voices behind some of the better-known campaigns, such as “We Are One” or “We Want to Know” on social media in Vietnam, in her own way, her life and works could really help people understand how one ordinary person in Vietnam begins her journey towards self-empowerment to stand up and defend universal human rights.

Fair Trials

Self Immolation in Vietnam: A Victim of Injustice’s Agonizing Act In Defiance

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Mr. Bùi Hữu Tuân at the scene. Photo credits: Facebook Trịnh Bá Phương

In the afternoon of July 2, 2018, a man committed self-immolation in the center of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, a few steps away from the Central Citizen Reception Committee’s office on Ngô Thì Nhậm Street.

He was later identified as 58-year-old Bùi Hữu Tuân, former village chief of Đạo Ngạn Village, Hợp Đồng Ward, Chương Mỹ District, Hanoi.

The victim is now in critical conditions with severe burns to the whole body.

Mr. Tuân was charged with Article 356 of Vietnam’s Penal Code for “abusing official position, power in the performance of official duties.”

He was supposed to begin his sentence of 3-year-imprisonment today, July 3, 2018. In the last act of defiance, one day before its commencement, he desperately protested the injustice of the trial and his conviction.

He was charged, tried, and convicted with not only insufficient evidence, but the evidence at trial showed that the prosecution did not even have any evidence for one element of the crime they had charged him with.

His son told VOA Vietnamese in an interview on July 2, 2018, that after Tuân failed to get the Central Citizen Reception Committee’s office agreed to halt his sentencing while reviewing his complaint to the Government Inspectorate, he went outside and committed the self-immolation.

Article 356 prescribes: “Any person who, for personal gain or other self-seeking purposes, abuses his/her power or position in performance of official duties to act against his/her official duties and as a result causes property damage of from VND 10,000,000 to under VND 200,000,000 or infringes upon state interests, lawful rights and interests of another organization or individual shall face a penalty of up to 03 years’ community sentence or 01 – 05 years’ imprisonment.”

From Pháp luật Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (The Law – Hochiminh City) newspaper, the most damning evidence against Tuân was that he – as the village chief – allegedly accepted money, along with the requests of some 23 families in the village, to ask the local government to give them lands to build their ancestors’ shrines and worship places. Yet, none of this money went to Tuân or any of his two co-defendants, as it was donated to the village.

The local procuracy’s office (the prosecution in Vietnam) and the court further alleged that he had overstepped his authorities in giving out land slots to the villagers, and thus had committed a crime under the above penal code.

According to them, he had abused his “official duties” even though some people questioned whether the village chief position could be considered an “office”.

At the trial court level, Tuân was convicted and sentenced to the maximum term prescribed by law: 5-year-imprisonment. The appeal trial upheld his conviction but reduced the sentence to 3 years.

The appellate court’s decision in upholding his conviction with actual imprisonment was the last straw for Bùi Hữu Tuân, and he committed the unimaginable act of setting himself on fire.

From a legal standpoint, Tuân was correct in protesting his conviction and his sentence because the first element of the crime “abusing official position, power in the performance of official duties” seemed to have been conveniently ignored throughout his criminal proceedings.

In the same article published back in November 2017, Pháp Luật newspaper reported that it was established at trial that all of the money which Tuân and his co-defendants received from the villagers, was donated to various community services projects in the village.

Neither Tuân or any of his co-defendants had used any portion of the money for personal gains.

In other words, it is almost certain that the prosecution would not be able to prove the first element of the crime alleged against him, that he did commit an act for personal gain or other self-seeking purposes.

Worse, the evidence further showed that Tuân did submit the villagers’ requests to the ward’s officials, asking them to give out the land to people for burial and worship purposes. Pháp Luật newspaper also wrote, back in November 2017, that they had interviewed the villagers independently and were told that the local officials were present, at all times, to survey the land with the defendants.

And while Tuân and two of his deputy chiefs were tried and convicted, none of the ward’s officials had to face criminal charges even though the same evidence could be used against them.

By the same token, it could be argued that if the evidence were not enough to file charges against the local officials, then it certainly would not be enough to convict Tuân and the co-defendants.

Undeniably, Tuân’s trial and conviction again delineate the inefficient and broken legal system in Vietnam where people can be charged, tried, and convicted with no evidence to prove the required elements of the crime.

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Freedom of expression

“Minds” over Facebook: Vietnamese Netizens’ Great Cyber Exodus?

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Photo Credit: Adorkableaznbunny

In the past two days, the “F-Generation” of Vietnam started what seems to be an online exodus when many well-known Facebookers announced that they are moving on to Minds.com – an alternate platform for social media.

The “F” in F-Generation stands for “Facebook” as the online social media giant has a dominant presence in the country where some statistics raised the number of users to be between 50 to 60 million.

For about two months, people had been protesting both online and offline against the latest Cybersecurity law which was passed by an overwhelming 86.86% of the National Assembly.

The law raised concerns over Internet users’ privacy, people’s freedom of expression, and their right to access the Internet.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, declared: “This bill, which squarely targets free expression and access to information, will provide yet one more weapon for the government against dissenting voices. It is no coincidence that it was drafted by the country’s Ministry of Public Security, notorious for human rights violations.”

In less than two days, some of the prominent Facebookers have received thousands of subscribers over at their freshly minted Minds accounts.

In the same time, reports of pages and personal accounts have been taken down by Facebook also surfaced.

Trương Thị Hà, a victim of police brutality during the last “Black Sundays” protest, announced on Minds this morning that her account has been deactivated by Facebook.

After she posted a letter to her university professor, asking him to explain why he stood there while the police brutalized her during her detention after the protest, that very post was deleted for “violating Facebook community standards” at about 8:30 a.m. Then, her entire account seemed to have disappeared by 10:40 a.m.

According to author Claire Bernish who wrote about Minds back in June 2015, Facebook could finally meet its match. Minds gives users the familiarity with many features they have already accustomed to on Facebook while commits to protecting their privacy.

“Minds takes the government’s eyes out of the equation by encrypting private messages and using open-source code that any programmer can check,” Bernish explained.

“We are a free and open-source platform to launch your digital brand, social network, and mobile app. We are also a social network ourselves. It is a global social network of social networks,” the Minds team declared.

The hacker collective Anonymous also backed Minds, citing the fact that the founders of the new online social media shared the same vision of those who use the Internet for activism.

According to the Wired UK: “Two of those on the Minds team – Bill Ottman and Lori Fena – have strong backgrounds dealing with privacy and freedom of expression issues and are both known for their internet-related activism. It is likely these are the type of people that the company is hoping to attract – those with a cause, who want to build something and share it openly with others who may also have a cause.”

President Trần Đại Quang signed the Cybersecurity bill into law on June 25, 2018, although some 27,000.00 signatures of citizens who had expressed their objection to the proposal of the law, were delivered to his office during the prior weekend.

It seems as if the activists and human rights defenders from Vietnam might have found a friend in Minds because the reason they chose Facebook in the first place, was to use the platform as a tool to advance a cause: promoting human rights and democracy in the country.

While not all of them agreed to the solution of leaving Facebook and saw that as a sign of defeat, the silence from Facebook during the last two months as the Cybersecurity law stormed the nation could force many activists to reconsider whether to continue to use it as their primary platform. Most are still using both platforms, but all seemed to agree that if Facebook agreed to comply with the new Cybersecurity, then it could mean they will have to leave for good.

Vietnamese netizens are no strangers to such online “resettlement.” Back in 2009, when Yahoo 360 blog closed down its operation, Facebook quickly became the next best choice in the country.

Almost ten years later, while Facebook could still enjoy its reign in the country as the most used online social media platform, the power of Vietnamese users should not be underestimated by anyone.

Afterall, Vietnamese are a group of people whose contemporary history entwined with mass migration and exodus. They have a lot of experience with starting over, yet again, and they will not be afraid to do so.

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Human Rights

Black Sundays Report: Vietnamese People’s Response To Police Brutality During June 2018 Protests

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Photo Credit: Nhật Ký Biểu Tình/Protestors' Diary Facebook Page

Civilians, victims of police brutality and arbitrary detention, academics, activists, researchers, and a lot more people from all walks of life inside and outside of Vietnam got together and produced a report on the two “Black Sundays” of June 10 and June 17, 2018.

It is the Vietnamese people’s unified and firm response to the vicious repression by the government during the latest rounds of protest in the country.

According to the Facebook page of Nhật Ký Biểu Tình (Protestors’ Diary), copies of the report have been delivered to the UN OHCHR, other international NGOs working on human rights as well as various foreign embassies.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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