Vietnam Briefing: Four Activists, Three Trials, And 35 Years Of Imprisonment

The Vietnamese Magazine
The Vietnamese Magazine

The Vietnam Briefing, which is released every Monday morning Vietnam time, looks at Vietnam’s social and political developments of the past week.


35 years of imprisonment for four Vietnamese activists

From December 14 to 16, Vietnamese courts tried four activists, including the prominent and internationally recognized journalist Pham Doan Trang, handing down a total 35 years of imprisonment.

According to official announcements:

  • Journalist Pham Doan Trang received nine years of imprisonment;
  • Land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam respectively received a 10-year prison sentence with five years’ probation and six-year prison sentence with three years’ probation;
  • Activist Do Nam Trung received a 10-year prison sentence and four years of probation.
  • They were all convicted under the “distributing anti-state propaganda” charge under Vietnam’s Penal Code.
  • Pham Doan Trang, Trinh Ba Phuong, and Nguyen Thi Tam were expected to appeal the court’s decision.

Most notably:

  • Doan Trang had only learned about her trial date one day before the trial, according to her lawyer.
  • Families and relatives of Phuong and Tam were not allowed to enter the courthouse and were later forcibly taken to the local police station.
  • Doan Trang and Phuong’s sentences were longer than the prison terms suggested by the Procuracy.

Reports from international news agencies:

Responses from the international community:

  • In a press statement, rights advocate Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Vietnamese government to “drop all criminal charges against the prominent human rights activist and blogger Pham Doan Trang and immediately release her.”
  • Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns Ming Yu Hah said in a press statement that “Amnesty International calls for the immediate release not only of Pham Doan Trang but of all unjustly detained human rights defenders in Viet Nam, including land rights defenders Trinh Ba Phuong, Nguyen Thi Tam, and activist Do Nam Trung, all of whom are expected to go on trial this week in Viet Nam.”  
  • Regarding the imprisonment of Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam, HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson December 14 urged the Vietnamese government to “release these two activists and all others arrested and imprisoned under Article 117, and abolish this abusive law.”
  • Responding to the sentencing of activist Do Nam Trung, Phil Robertson stated that Do Nam Trung “is the latest victim of Vietnamese government retaliation against citizens who refuse to remain silent in the face of injustice and rights abuses” and he called for global pressure on Vietnam to “to repeal this abusive criminal law that blatantly violates the right to free expression.”
  • Ned Price, the spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State, affirmed that “[the] United States calls on the Vietnamese government to release  Trang, who  has been recognized internationally for her work to advance human rights and good governance in Vietnam, and to allow all individuals in Vietnam to express their views freely and without fear of retaliation.”
  • On social media, the Embassy of Canada to Vietnam wrote that Canada is “deeply concerned by the sentencing of Ms. Pham Thi Doan Trang” and called on the Vietnamese government to “allow journalists to practise their profession without fear of arrest, harassment or reprisal, and to end extensive censorship and control over the media and wider freedom of expression.”
  • The UK’s Minister for Asia, Amanda Milling MP, stated: “The sentencing of Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang to 9 years is deeply worrying. Imprisoning journalists for peacefully expressing their views sends the wrong message to those supporting the development of Viet Nam and its people.”
  • In a press statement, a spokesperson of the European Union called on Vietnam to “release all human rights defenders arbitrarily detained and to guarantee the right to a fair trial for all individuals.”
  • Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade wrote on Twitter that Australia “is disappointed internationally recognised Vietnamese journalist and author Pham Doan Trang has been sentenced to 9 years in prison” and said that it would “continue to encourage Vietnam to uphold its human rights commitments.”
  • Press freedom advocate Committee to Protect Journalists called the sentencing of Pham Doan Trang a reaffirmation of Vietnam’s “abysmal” press freedom record and urged the Vietnamese government to “immediately and unconditionally release journalist Pham Doan Trang, and stop imprisoning independent news reporters for their work.”

Final statements:

  • In her final statement, Pham Doan Trang said that “only extremely foolish and heinous governments would try to extinguish [the fact of pluralism] through repression and the imprisonment of dissidents, writers, journalists, social critics, and democracy and human rights activists.” The full text can be found here.
  • After the conclusion of Trinh Ba Phuong’s trial, his wife Do Thi Thu published a speech, which was said to be Phuong’s final statement at the court. In the speech, Phuong reaffirmed that he is “not guilty.” The full speech of Trinh Ba Phuong can be found here.

What to watch:

  • The appeal trial of other land rights activists Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu is scheduled to take place on December 24, 2021.
  • The trial of civil journalist and former political candidate Le Trong Hung is scheduled to take place on December 31, 2021.

Vietnam turns back to the giant gas field after net-zero pledge

From The Strategist:

“At last month’s COP26 climate summit, Vietnam made its own pledge to cut emissions and reach net zero by 2050. The COP events are not new for the country; it signed the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 and has known since the middle of last decade just how devastating rising sea levels could be for a low-lying nation with a huge coastline and agriculture-dependent on a river delta rice basket.

At the same time, Vietnam’s industrial ambition has been huge, to both modernise and attract industry from China and elsewhere so it can engage in manufacturing at a higher level than just the garment trade. To this end, it has attracted a suite of high-end foreign companies, many American, in recent years and now has its own home-built cars, both combustion and electric.”


Ex-Hanoi chairman jailed for 8 more years for power abuse

Reuters reports:

“A Vietnamese court jailed a former head of Hanoi's governing body for a further eight years on Monday for abuse of power, state media reported his second conviction as part of a crackdown on graft by the ruling Communist Party.

Nguyen Duc Chung, 54, was found guilty of charges stemming from the siphoning of 36 billion dong ($1.57 million) from a public investment project, which he used to help a company owned by his family, state media said.

Chung was last year sentenced to five years in prison for misappropriating secret state documents and misusing assets, which caused more than $40 million of losses to the state budget.”


Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

China-US rivalry: how Vietnam's deft balancing act keeps it from having to pick sides

South China Morning Post/ Richard Heydarian/ December 18

“Overall, Vietnam has simultaneously enhanced its defensive capabilities and deepened economic autonomy by developing a diverse network of strategic partnerships. Thanks to its omnibalancing strategy, a self-reliant Vietnam is neither too dependent on any superpower nor fully vulnerable to a resurgent China in the South China Sea.”

Vietnam’s Annus Horribilis for Human Rights

The Diplomat/ Stewart Rees/ December 15

“Today’s news serves as a reminder that the Vietnamese government feels as though it has the freedom to act with impunity from the international community. That Vietnam is next year likely to be elected as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council adds insult to injury after what has been a dispiriting year in the country. Sometimes it seems as though Vietnam’s behavior is deliberately intended to make a mockery of human rights. Trang’s arrest on October 6 last year came just hours after the conclusion of the 24th annual human rights dialogue conference held with the U.S. government.”

Why the West Has Gone Soft on Human Rights in Vietnam

The Diplomat/ David Hutt/ December 15

“For Vietnamese activists, that’s a problem. Almost all pro-democracy voices in Vietnam are, first, pro-U.S. and, second, fervently nationalistic in wanting their government to challenge China on every perceivable issue. The two positions aren’t just corollary but indistinguishable. However, the more Vietnam makes itself integral to America’s strategic aims, the more Washington is likely to ignore political repression in Vietnam. If Vietnam wasn’t such an important part of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s hard to imagine Washington not being far more critical of its government’s repression. Or, more accurately, if Hanoi ever tipped its hat towards either superpower, rather than hedging between the two, then Washington would have more reason to act.”

Facebook remains a centre of authoritarianism and hate in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Globe/ Jack Brook, Govi Snell/ December 13

“Government internet monitoring has increased since 2018 under a Vietnamese cybersecurity law requiring global technology companies to establish physical offices. Under the statute, Facebook must locally store the data of more than 65 million users in the country.

Facing the possibility of being kicked offline in Vietnam, where the company earns annual revenue of about $1 billion, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg caved to government demands and agreed to site monitoring and increased censorship of anti-state posts.”

The Picture of Freedom of Expression in Vietnam; Could It Be Any Darker?

The 88 Project/ December 13

“The picture of human rights in general and the right to freedom of expression in particular in Vietnam gets darker and darker. In order to improve it, Vietnam should firstly eliminate its well-documented practice of intimidation and harassment by law enforcement altogether. Secondly, it must comply with international human rights law by ensuring due process for defendants, especially the right to counsel, among other legitimate rights. Thirdly, the State should abolish provisions in the 2015 Criminal Code that give it unrestricted power to suppress expressions of dissent. And most importantly, Vietnam should drop the charges against activists, human rights defenders, and political prisoners and immediately and unconditionally release them, without conditions such as exiles.”

Vietnam BriefingHuman Rightspolitical prisonersPham Doan TrangTrinh Ba PhuongNguyen Thi TamDo Nam Trung

The Vietnamese Magazine

An independent and nonprofit magazine that brings political knowledge on Vietnam to the world. Self-censorship has no place here.