On August 11, the Hanoi People’s High Court held two appeals hearings for three environmental NGO leaders, Mai Phan Loi, Bach Hung Duong, and Dang Dinh Bach. They were previously arrested and convicted of allegations of “committing tax evasion” under Article 200 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. Loi and Duong each had their prison terms reduced by three months, while Bach’s sentence was upheld by the appellate court.
Loi, 51, the founder and former scientific council director of the Center for Media in Educating Community (MEC), a nonprofit organization, was sentenced to 48 months in prison, while Duong, 47, the former director of MEC, received 30 months in prison on January 11. Meanwhile, Bach, 44, a lawyer and director of Law and Policy of Sustainable Development (LPSD), a legal and environmental advocacy organization, was sentenced to five years in prison on January 24.
Vietnam’s State media reported that Loi had his prison term lowered from 48 months to 45 months, while Duong’s prison term was reduced from 30 months to 27 months.
According to the court, via State media, the decision was based on Loi’s efforts to reimburse the government a portion of the alleged evaded taxes and his willingness to confess and cooperate with the investigation agency in solving the case. The appellate court added that it also decided to reduce the prison terms since both Loi and Duong are in poor health.
The indictment stated that between 2012 and March 2021, MEC had “received financial funding worth more than 19 billion dong” ($812,000) from donors and organizations. It added that Loi subsequently ordered Duong to “sign monetary withdrawal documents” and directed his subordinates “not to declare financial statements and issue value-added invoices [for those withdrawals].”
The investigation agency concluded that Loi had evaded and benefited by nearly 2 billion dong in taxes from the financial donations that his organization had received.
Meanwhile, state media reported that the appellate court announced its final verdict for Dang Dinh Bach later on the same day, upholding his earlier five-year sentence. Bach denied all allegations and claimed he was “not guilty.” He also refused to recompense the government for around 1.38 billion dong of tax money, which he was accused of evading between 2016 and 2020.
Bach, Loi, and Duong are executive board members of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA)-VNGO network, a coalition of seven civil society groups that had applied to become the official Vietnamese Domestic Advisory Group (DAG). The formation of DAG was required as part of the EVFTA to monitor each side’s commitment to fair trade, labor rights protection and sustainable development. Many human rights activists believe that the Vietnamese government has used trumped-up “tax evasion” charges to silence critical voices about its environmental policies.
In an interview with POLITICO last February, Tran Phuong Thao, Bach’s wife, said that her husband was arrested after his organization had responded to an EU appeal for more people in Vietnam to join the Hanoi DAG, which only had three members at the time, including two very close to the Vietnamese state. Thao also urged the EU to intervene in Bach’s case and pressure the Vietnamese government to “release [him] immediately.”
Regarding her husband’s appeals hearing, Thao told RFA Vietnamese that she was given a “defendant’s family card” to attend the hearing but was eventually barred from entering the courtroom by security forces. The Hanoi court announced that it was a public trial. Thao added that the authorities also forbade diplomats from the U.S. Embassy, German Embassy, and representatives from the EU delegation in Vietnam from attending the hearing, claiming that the courtroom “had run out of seats.”
“As a wife, I was very enraged and indignant that I couldn’t attend the public trial of my husband,” Thao said. “[I think] the reason why the court didn’t reduce [Bach’s] prison term is because our family didn’t recompense the alleged tax evasion money,” she added.
In a letter sent to the Vietnamese government on February 18, 2022, regarding Dang Dinh Bach’s case, four special rapporteurs from the UN Human Rights Council wrote they were concerned that “the charge of tax evasion” is being used against a non-profit organization whose work focuses on environmental protection.”
The UN Special Rapporteurs also demanded that Vietnam respond to the allegations over its failure to hold a fair trial for Dang Dinh Bach. The rapporteurs pointed out that all non-profit and non-government organizations (NGOs) are not subject to tax, according to Viet Nam’s laws. They also underscored Bach’s declining health in prison and that he initiated a hunger strike on January 10 to protest his prolonged incommunicado detention.