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Two Years Later, Formosa Toxic Pollution Still Sends People to Prison in Vietnam

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Hoàng Đức Bình at his appeal hearing on April 24, 2018. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

April 24, 2018| After an approximate three-hour hearing, the Appellate Court of Nghe An Province, Vietnam, affirmed the 14-year sentence for blogger and human rights defender, Hoàng Đức Bình, in relation to the 2017 protests of Catholic fishermen in the areas affected by the Formosa environmental disaster.

Hoàng Đức Bình, a member of the Viet Labor Movement, was sentenced earlier this year by a trial court in February.

The story on the marine pollution caused by Taiwan’s Formosa Hà Tĩnh Steel Corporation broke out two years ago in Vietnam, prompting a nationwide protest in April and May 2016 where people demanded the company closed its steel mill business and ceased all of its operations.

Formosa admitted in May 2016 that they were responsible for the toxic spill from their factory into the local sea in violations of Vietnam’s laws, and agreed to pay 500 million USD for damages in a confidential settlement with the Vietnamese government.

The toxic pollution caused by Formosa is estimated to have affected the livelihood of people along more than 200 km of local seawaters in four coastal provinces of Central Vietnam.

To date, the public in Vietnam still has very little information regarding the settlement agreement while many affected families have yet to receive their shares in the settlement.

Thus, local people continued their protests against Formosa, and Hoàng Đức Bình was among them.

One of the activities Bình participated in, was to travel with fishermen from Quỳnh Lưu District, Nghệ An Province to the local courts in Hà Tĩnh Province – where Formosa is located – to file their civil suits against the company in February 2017, and the authorities of Nghệ An Province arrested him after that.

Attorney Nguyễn Khả Thành, one of Bình’s lawyers, announced the court’s decision on his Facebook today.

According to his lawyer, Hoàng Đức Bình was convicted on two separate charges under Vietnam’s 1999 Penal Code. Article 257 is for “resisting officers acting under their duty,” and Article 258 is for “abusing freedoms and democratic rights to infringe upon the State’s interest or the rights and interests of other entities and individuals.”

Bình was given the maximum sentence – 7 years – for each of the offenses, which implied that the court found his conduct to be “seriously harmful” to the public according to the sentencing guidelines of Articles 257 and 258.

Hoàng Đức Bình maintained that all he did was to accompany the fishermen and a Catholic priest in traveling from Nghệ An to Hà Tĩnh to file their civil suits.

Nghệ An Province was not among the list of the four provinces to receive compensation from Formosa’s 500M USD settlement, and hence, the need for fishermen there to file lawsuits to recover for their alleged damages arose.

On September 25, 2015, just a few months before the story of Formosa marine life disaster broke the news, world leaders have agreed on what now is known as the 17 Sustainable Developmentment Goals. Among them, the seriousness of climate change due to humans’ activities is highlighted, and that countries have agreed, future economic development must go hand in hand with environmental protection and respect for human rights.

After the trial court convicted Bình for a total of 14 years in February this year, UN experts and Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement, condemning his arrest and sentence and demanded his release.

“Imprisoning bloggers and activists for their legitimate work raising public awareness on environmental and public health concerns is unacceptable,” said Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes.

“We call on the authorities to release Hoang Duc Binh and Nguyen Nam Phong who were detained following their efforts to raise awareness and ensure accountability in relation to the spill of the Formosa Steel plant. Authorities must ensure that Viet Nam’s rapid economic expansion does not come at the expense of human rights, in particular those of local communities and workers.”

Another lawyer of Hoàng Đức Bình, Hà Huy Sơn, also wrote on his Facebook today: Bình told him that before his trial in February 2018, he was beaten up by death-row inmates who were put in the same cell as his.

Attorney Sơn also added in the same status, that the only witnesses participated in the trial were the traffic police officers involved in the alleged incident, and none of the video clips capturing the event were allowed to be introduced. He then concluded, the court has violated Vietnam’s criminal procedures and that the verdict is therefore unjust.

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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