The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Viet Nam on 25 May 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. The Government replied on 19 July 2023, asking for a one-month extension. At the time of publication, no additional response has been received.
Since the communication was sent, Dang Dinh Bach went on his fourth hunger strike since his arrest in 2021 to campaign for “the environment, justice, and climate”. He subsequently ended this in July. Bach’s recent family visit on 15 August to Prison No. 6 in Nghe was heavily surveilled by prison security. They found Bach weighing less than 45 kg. He has been refusing to eat prison food since 8 August to protest his maltreatment and the prohibition on him sending letters and poems to his wife.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topic: escalating administrative and judicial harassment of woman human rights defender Ms. Tran Phuong Thao, who is the wife of imprisoned environmental human rights defender Dang Dinh Bach, as well as the continued incarceration of Mr. Dang Dinh Bach himself, in connection with the exercise of their freedom of expression, environmental advocacy, and human rights activities, respectively.
Mr. Dang Dinh Bach is an environmental rights defender, community lawyer and Director of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center (LPSD Center). Mr. Dang Dinh Bach has extensive experience in policy advocacy and community lawyering. He is the Vietnamese member of the Mekong Legal Network, a network of legal professionals that works to protect the rights of communities affected by the negative impact of international corporations on the environment, and a member of the World Commission on Environmental Law (IUCN). Moreover, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach is an executive board member of the VNGO-EVFTA Network, a group of seven environmental CSOs that sought to create a monitoring group known as Domestic Advisory Group (DAG) to oversee the government’s compliance with environmental and labour conditions contained in the EU-VN Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA). Mr. Bach’s and other environmental advocates, also members of the DAG, were arrested before the first meeting between the Viet Nam DAG and its European Union counterpart, the EU DAG, took place.
The LPSD Center, of which Mr. Dang Dinh Bach was the Director, conducts legal advocacy on environmental, land grabbing and industrial pollution cases. The Center aims to protect public interests by creating the concept of “Community Lawyers” in Viet Nam, and ensures equal participation, transparency, and rights and responsibilities among stakeholders in the economic, social, and environmental fields. The LPSD Center also implements a mechanism to promote community autonomy and builds sustainable community development models, while seeking to enhance the effectiveness of enforcement and complete the current policy and legal framework, promoting the sustainable development process in Viet Nam.
LPSD Center was the coordinator of the Action for Justice, Health, and Environment (JHE) advocacy coalition and a member of Viet Nam Sustainable Energy Alliance (VSEA), a coalition of 12 Vietnamese and international CSOs established in 2012 to strengthen sustainable energy development in Viet Nam and the Mekong region for by promoting participatory energy policy-making process, implementation of decentralized renewable energy solutions and application of energy efficiency. Bach and the other three human rights and environmental rights defenders detained on charges of tax evasion in Viet Nam are leaders and outspoken members of the VSEA.
Mr. Dang Dinh Bach was arrested on 24 June 2021 and sentenced to five years in prison for “tax evasion” pursuant to article 200 of the 2015 Criminal Code. His sentence was confirmed by the appeal court on 11 Aug 2022. Bach was only allowed to meet his lawyers one time before his first instance trial, on 14 January 2021, less than 10 days before the trial was due to begin. Similarly, after Bach appealed his sentence, he was only allowed to meet with his lawyers once, on 21 July 2022, before his appeal hearing.
Ms. Tran Phuong Thao is the spouse of the aforementioned environmental human rights defender, and a woman human rights defender in her own right. Since her husband was arrested in June of 2021, she has been a steadfast advocate for the release of Mr. Dang Dinh Bach and has engaged with UN human rights mechanisms in pursuit of this. Furthermore, in her husband’s absence, Ms. Thao has also played a role in assuming some of work that her husband was engaged in before his incarceration. She has taken up the position of director of the LPSD Group Joint Stock Company, a private business that operates independently of LPSD. Ms. Tran Phuong has reportedly been subjected to administrative and judicial harassment.
The case of Mr. Dang Dinh Bach
On 24 June 2021, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach was arbitrarily arrested for tax evasion after leading a campaign, together with other members of VSEA, to push the government of Viet Nam to commit to reducing its reliance on coal for electricity generation. Mr. Bach alleges that his arrest was designed to punish his efforts to hold the government of Viet Nam accountable to labour and sustainability conditions it had agreed to under its trade deal with the European
Union. Mr. Bach’s arrest coincided with the arrest of three other prominent human rights defenders, also actively engaged in the VN DAG, the VSEA and in advocating with the government for achieving zero-net carbon emissions by 2050. He was subsequently charged with “tax evasion” and was sentenced to 5 years in prison for alleged corporate income tax evasion under clause 3, article 200 of the 2015 Penal Code.
According to the investigation report, the revenue of the LPSD Centre is “foreign non-governmental aid”, following the decree 80/2020/ND on management and use of grant aid not in the form of official development assistance of foreign agencies, organizations, and individuals for Viet Nam. The report states that, while serving as LPSD’s director between 2013-2020, Bach received funding for 10 projects from foreign donors, but failed to seek Government’s approval for these projects as required by decrees 93/2009/NĐ-CP and 80/2020/NĐ-CP. LPSD did not seek approval for projects and as required by decrees 93/2009/NĐ-CP and 80/2020/NĐ-CP.
While the other three human rights and environmental rights defenders arrested together or shortly after Bach have pled guilty to the charge to the charge of “tax evasion”, Bach has maintained his innocence.
Since 17 March 2023, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach engaged in a partial hunger strike while in prison. This is not the first time that the human rights defender has subjected himself to hunger strike during his incarceration, having also sustained a hunger strike to demand justice be administered.
On 15 April 2023, Ms. Tran Phuong Thao was permitted access to meet with her husband Dang Dinh Bach in prison. For the duration of their interaction, there were five officials surveilling Bach on his side of the partition and two officials watching Thao on her side. Mr. Bach was permitted to give his wife a list of things that he wished to say, which had been pre-approved by the prison authorities ahead of the interaction between them. Mr. Bach informed his wife that if his circumstances did not change, and he was not exonerated, he would intensify his hunger strike to “a full hunger strike” on 24 June 2023, a date which will mark two years since his arrest. He has also requested that his family cease sending him food supplies as this will be in contravention to the goal he wishes to achieve. Ms. Thao reported that her husband had already lost more than 10kg and that he appeared “emaciated”. Ms. Thao has also communicated that her husband has not been permitted to avail of the medication that she has sent him while in prison, which relates to his asthma. This is reportedly because the medication in question is of a “traditional” nature and does not conform to the modern Western pharmaceutical standards prescribed by the prison regulations.
The case of Ms. Tran Phuong Thao
On 18 January 2023, Ms. Tran Phuong Thao received a phone call from a female civil servant who was contacting her on behalf of the General Department of Civil Judgment Enforcement of Hanoi city. She requested Ms. Tran Phuong Thao to pay them VND 1,381,093,134 ($58,237), a sum corresponding to the amount that her husband, Bach, is alleged to have evaded. The officer informed Ms. Thao that if the money was not repaid, then the department would confiscate property belonging to the family in compensation for this. The call from the officer is reported to have caused Ms. Thao a great deal of stress. In an effort to pay back the amount demanded of her, Ms. Thao contacted her husband’s family, to ask him to help her to sell the family car so that she could repay the money.
On 7 March 2023, however, Ms. Thao was subsequently contacted by the same person from the Department of Civil Justice Enforcement informing her of the department’s intention to repossess the family car in question, as well as other property belonging to Mr. Bach’s family, to satisfy the sum that Mr. Bach allegedly owes. She also informed Ms. Thao that she was aware Ms. Thao had tried to receive help in selling her husband’s car, although this was private information not publicly known.
Furthermore, when Ms. Thao visited Mr. Bach in prison on 17 March 2023, Mr. Bach told her that an officer from the same department had visited him in prison and had informed him that his bank account had been seized.
Additionally, on 8 February 2023, Ms. Thao was once again reportedly subjected to administrative harassment. On this occasion, the Dong Da District Tax Department sent a letter to the Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center (LPSD) Group Joint Stock Company, of which Ms. Thao is now the director, alleging that Mr. Bach had incorrectly declared his personal income tax for the year of 2020. As a penalty for this reported breach in protocol, Ms. Thao was instructed to pay a fine on behalf of the company, amounting to VND 25,000,000 ($1,054). The woman human rights defender was also summoned to report to the tax office.
Over the two weeks that followed this incident, another officer from the district tax department called Ms. Thao many times, threatening to refer the matter to the police if the instructions of the letter were not adhered to.
Following this, on 10 March 2023, Ms. Thao received another letter which again summoned her to appear before the tax department, Thao complied with this and attended the department on 13 March 2023 where, upon her arrival, she submitted a written response in person. In this letter, she explained that Mr. Bach was unable to pay the fine, owing to the fact that he is still in prison, on account of which his bank accounts have been frozen. She expressed that, should the department wish to pursue this further, they should contact her husband to discuss the matter with him instead, stressing that she was not involved in the tax declarations for the year in question. Ms. Thao has otherwise remarked that, since her husband’s arrest, she has been left unable to manage certain financial matters in relation to their home.
In the communication, we express serious concern regarding the continued detention of Mr. Dang Dinh Bach in connection with the exercise of his freedom of expression and his peaceful and legitimate human rights and environmental rights activities, which he was conducting in advance of his arrest. We are particularly concerned regarding the state of the human rights defender’s health while in prison, owing to the partial hunger strike that he has been engaged in since 17 March 2023, as well as the lack of access to medicines he was accustomed to taking prior to his arrest.
Furthermore, we express our deep concern regarding the government’s administrative and judicial harassment of Ms. Thao, which appears designed to punish her for her advocacy and her criticism of her husband’s continued arrest, including with the UN. Moreover, we are concerned that the administrative harassment of Ms. Thao may be designed to put additional pressure on Mr. Bach who has continued to affirm his innocence whilst in prison. In this way, we fear these reported violations against Ms. Thao comprise part of a pattern of disproportionate and irregular sanctions against Mr. Bach.
We have pointed in the past to numerous credible allegations of intimidation and reprisals that followed when victims shared testimonies or availed themselves of procedures established under the auspices of the UN to protect human rights. We fear that these are more than isolated incidents and they could signal an emerging pattern. We note that Viet Nam has been included in several reports of the Secretary-General on intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN, its representatives, and mechanisms in the field of human rights. On this basis, we will continue to closely follow Ms. Thao’s and Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s situation.
We also note that the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently published its Opinions adopted at its ninety-sixth session, which was held between 27 March and 5 April 2023 in which it recommended, as part of Opinion No. 22/2023, that Mr. Bach be released.