On 6 October 2020, the renowned Vietnamese author, journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang was arrested by police in Ho Chi Minh City and detained without access to her family or legal representatives. Trang’s apartment was raided in a joint operation by the police and officials from the Ministry of Public Security. Her arrest took place just hours after the conclusion of the twenty-fourth annual US–Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. Trang was charged under Article 177 of the Vietnamese Penal Code and accused of ‘making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’. If convicted, she faces up to twenty years in prison.
Trang is co-founder of the online magazine Luat Khoa Tap Chi and a member of the editorial board of The Vietnamese, an independent news website that aims to raise public awareness of human rights and politics in Vietnam. She is also the author of several books, including Cam Nang Nuoi Tu (‘Handbook on Supporting Prisoners’) and Phan Khang Phi Bao Luc (‘Non-Violent Opposition’).
A vocal critic of the government, Trang has repeatedly been in trouble with the authorities. Last year, I wrote in these pages about how she was detained in November 2016 after meeting an EU delegation in Hanoi to discuss human rights violations and environmental degradation in Vietnam (LR, Oct 2019). After this meeting, the police confiscated her personal property, including her mobile phone and laptop, and held her incommunicado without access to lawyers. In 2017, Trang received the Homo Homini Award in recognition of her work to promote human rights and democracy. In 2018, after publishing Chinh Tri Binh Dan (‘Popular Politics’), she was taken into custody and interrogated for nine hours about its contents. On 15 August 2018, Trang and three other activists were attacked by policemen who broke up dissident singer Nguyen Tin’s ‘Memory of Saigon’ show. She was beaten and was later diagnosed with concussion. Friends trying to visit her in hospital were harassed and attacked. In 2019, Trang published another book, Politics of a Police State, which combines two of her other works. The same year, she was awarded the Reporters Without Borders Prize for Impact.
Despite being subjected to repeated intimidation, Trang has refused to be silenced. In May of this year, Trang drafted a letter to be circulated in the event that she was imprisoned. On 24 June, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security explicitly referred to Trang’s written works as ‘anti-state propaganda’ and, on 10 July, she was forced to dissociate herself from the Liberal Publishing House in order to ensure the safety of its members. Soon afterwards, she went into hiding, anticipating that she would be arrested.
Her most recent arrest is part of a widespread crackdown on bloggers and activists in advance of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s National Congress, due to take place in January next year. In June of this year, PEN America and other human rights organisations co-signed a letter calling on Vietnam to improve its appalling human rights record. The letter noted the arrest of at least eleven campaigners and critics of the government in that month alone. Among those arrested were land rights activists Can Thi Theu and Nguyen Thi Tam, who had highlighted illegal government land grabs at Duong Noi and Dong Tam, human rights activist Vu Tien Chi, Facebook user Nguyen Thi Cam Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan, one of the youngest members of Vietnam’s Independent Journalists Association. The organisation has previously been targeted by the authorities: its president, Pham Chi Dung, was arrested in November 2019, and its vice-president, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and a prominent former member, Pham Chi Thanh, were detained in May 2020. Like Trang, these individuals were arrested under Article 117 of the Penal Code.
These arrests demonstrate a hardening of the Vietnamese government’s intolerance of dissent and a renewed determination to harass human rights defenders, activists and journalists. Independent media and civil society groups, including the Liberal Publishing House and the Independent Journalists Association, have been feeling the effects of this crackdown since the end of 2019.
Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Vietnamese authorities to release Pham Doan Trang immediately and drop all charges against her under the Vietnamese Penal Code; requesting that Trang be granted immediate and unimpeded access to her family and lawyers; and urging the government to end its crackdown on bloggers, writers and free speech activists.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Nguyen Phu Trong
General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam and President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
1a Hung Vuong Street, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Pham Binh Minh
Minister of Foreign Affairs
1 Ton That Dam Street, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Fax: +844 3823 1872
His Excellency Ambassador Tran Ngoc An
Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
12–14 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD
Fax: +44 20 7565 3853