On June 22, 2022, a Vietnamese court in Binh Thuan Province tried Le Chi Thanh, a former police captain, and sentenced him to three years in prison for allegedly “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on State and individuals’ legitimate rights and interests,” under Article 331 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. The verdict was declared at 3 p.m. on the same day, according to Thanh’s lawyer, Dang Dinh Manh.
In April 2021, Thanh was arrested for “resisting officers on official duty.” The incident happened when he argued and live-streamed a traffic police’s confiscated his car for driving in the wrong lane. Le Chi Thanh was later found guilty and received two years of imprisonment in January 2022.
After that trial, Thank was also charged with Article 331.
Le Chi Thanh, a former correctional officer at Ham Tan Detention Center in Binh Thuan Province was fired and deprived of his police badge in July 2020 after he accused his supervisor of corruption in several live-streamed videos.
He later became a vocal critic on social media, where he used these platforms to expose the corruption and wrongdoings of the public security forces, especially the traffic police and correctional officers.
According to the indictment, Thanh used his social media accounts “to publish a number of videos and status that defamed his former supervisor, Colonel Le Ba Thuy, and another officer at the detention center.”
Thanh had previously claimed in his videos that Colonel Thuy “owned a lot of land and property worth billions of dong” and that his assets allegedly came from “illegitimate sources.”
The police investigative department later said that Thanh’s accusations were “distorted” and that the colonel “only owned two houses,” which were purchased with “the savings from his salary, farming, and a family-run business.” State media reported that Thuy did not ask for civil compensation but he demanded that the court try the defendant in accordance with the law.
The Vietnamese government often uses Article 331 of the 2015 Penal Code to punish and imprison people in cases deemed to be defamation. However, many attorneys and legal professionals argue that this legal code can be manipulated to target those who criticize the Communist Party and government officials.
As of this writing, there are 54 people who have been arrested under Article 331 in Vietnam, according to a database from The 88 Project, a CSO that advocates for free speech.
According to attorney Dang Dinh Manh, Thanh’s sentence was in fact less severe than those who were previously convicted using this law. However, Manh added that Article 331 and Article 117, which criminalize anyone who “distributes anti-State propaganda,” should not be included in Vietnam’s Penal Code because it goes against the principle of freedom of speech protected by the Vietnamese Constitution.
Manh believes that defamation lawsuits should be resolved in civil courts and the plaintiff could file for compensation should his or her reputation be damaged.
At the same time, there are concerns about Le Chi Thanh’s worsening health in the detention facility. Le Thi Phu, Thanh’s mother, said that her son was tortured and mistreated while in police custody.