Viet Nam: Sentencing of Human Rights Defenders Huynh Thuc Vy and Dang Dinh Bach (joint communication)

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 18 February 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public. The Government replied on 18 April 2022, requesting a two month extension, but as of August 2022, no follow up reply had been received.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

Topic: sentencing of woman human rights defender Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy and environmental rights defender Mr. Dang Dinh Bach, in connection with the exercise of their freedom of expression and human rights activities, respectively.

Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy is a woman human rights defender and daughter of a former prisoner of conscience. She started advocating for democracy, pluralism and human rights in 2008, and became a prolific blogger and writer on human rights issues. In 2012, Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy was awarded the Hellman/Hammett Prize by Human Rights Watch in recognition of her courage and dedication to human rights issues. In 2013, Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy co-founded Vietnamese Women for Human Rights (VWHR), a non-political, non-profit and independent organisation aiming to work on protecting women from human rights violations, supporting them materially and emotionally, to ensure their legal rights such as freedom of speech or freedom of assembly and of association, and providing human rights education for its members. Founders and members of VWHR have allegedly been harassed by security forces in Viet Nam and have faced judicial prosecution over the years.

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), which conducts legal advocacy on environmental, land grabbing and industrial pollution cases. The LPSD 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. Mr. Dang Dinh Bach is also a member of the World Commission on Environmental Law (IUCN). Moreover, he is Vietnamese member in Mekong Legal Network. Mr. Dang Dinh Bach has extensive experience in policy advocacy and community lawyering. He is also an executive board member of the VNGO-EVFTA Network, a group of seven development and environmental CSOs established in November 2020 to satisfy the formation of the Domestic Advisory Group (DAG), which is the civil society component of the EU-VN Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA). DAGs allow independent observers such as CSOs to monitor the implementation of the EVFTA, especially in areas such as workers’ rights, land rights and the environment.

ALLEGATIONS

The case of Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy:

On 1 September 2017, the day before Viet Nam National Day, Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy peacefully protested against the Government of Viet Nam and splashed white paint on the national red flag of Viet Nam.

On 8 August 2018, at approximately 7:00, the police of Buon Ho Commune in Dak Lak province appeared at Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy’s home and forcefully took her away for questioning. The police reportedly returned to Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy’s home one hour later with a search warrant.

During the search, the police allegedly confiscated several items including computers, a phone and a camera. On 9 August 2018, Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy was allowed to return home, but the police notified her that they had initiated a case against her under article 276 of the 1999 Penal Code of Viet Nam, for “disrespecting the national flag”. The police also ordered Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy not to leave her residential area pending further investigation of the charge.

On 16 October 2018, the police summoned Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy for a “working session”, during which the police returned the items that were confiscated during the house search. Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy was also informed that her case would be sent for prosecution.

In November 2018, Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy reportedly received confirmation that the People’s Court of Buon Ho Commune, Dak Lak Province, will proceed with her case and that a trial would be held on 22 November 2018. The trial was eventually postponed to 30 November 2018.

On 30 November 2018, the People’s Court of Buon Ho Commune, Dak Lak Province, sentenced Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy to two years and nine months in prison. She was charged under article 276 of the 1999 Penal Code for “disrespecting the national flag”, for splashing white paint on a flag in September 2017 as a sign of protest. At the time of the trial, Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy had a 20-month-old toddler and was eight weeks pregnant with her second child. As such, her sentence was deferred until the unborn child turned three years old, i.e. until June 2022, in accordance with article 61 of the 1999 Penal Code on “postponing the serving of imprisonment penalty.”

On 1 November 2021, at approximately 16:00, the police arrested Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy as she was travelling to a relative’s home. The police allegedly did not have a warrant at the time of arrest. Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy was reportedly first brought to a police station nearby, where her husband could speak to her for 10 minutes. She was then brought to Dak Lak provincial prison, where she has been detained since. Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy has reportedly been unable to receive visits from her family, and suffers from depression, for which she takes medication that she has not been allowed to receive.

Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy was arrested after the People’s Court of Buon Ho Commune, Dak Lak Province, revoked the suspension of her prison sentence until her youngest child turned three years old, for allegedly violating the terms of the suspension. Her lawyer was reportedly not officially notified of the court decision and her family was only officially notified on 30 November 2021, through a court document. The reason given for the revocation of the suspension was that Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy had allegedly violated the terms of the suspension through “actions that violate the law which cause dangers to society.” The Court did not specify what those actions were.

The case of Mr. Dang Dinh Bach:

On 24 June 2021 at approximately 7:00AM, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach was detained by six police officers without a warrant at his home in Hanoi. When questioned on the reason for his detention, the police officers allegedly stated that Mr. Dang Dinh Bach was being summoned to the Security Investigation Agency of Hanoi City Police for questioning on vaguely formulated charges of “tax evasion” of the LPSD Center, which carries a possible seven-year prison sentence under clause 3, article 200 of the 2015 Penal Code.

At approximately 9:30AM on the same day, more than 10 police officers conducted a search, reportedly without a warrant, at Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s home. The LPSD Center’s office was also searched at the same time. According to the court indictment issued on 29 November 2021, both Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s house and workplace were searched with the following items confiscated:

  • From Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s house: a used iPhone 6, a used HP laptop and several personal bank cards.
  • From Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s workplace: a used computer CPU, a used Sony Vaio laptop, a used Dell laptop, a LPSD Center’s stamp, and a stamp with Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s name.

After sending three requests for the return of the seized items, persons associated with Mr. Dang Dinh Bach and LPSD Center staff received some personal devices and documents back, which were considered “not related to the case”.

On 2 July 2021, the Investigation Agency formally announced Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s arrest and charge of “tax evasion”, which carries a possible seven-year prison sentence under clause 3, article 200 of the 2015 Penal Code.

On 8 July 2021, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s wife was reportedly called by a Hanoi Court investigator and given a letter from Mr. Dang Dinh Bach from Detention Center No.1 in Hanoi, where he is currently detained. In this letter, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach insisted that he was innocent and believes he was targeted because he was involved in the Son La Hydroelectric plant. Since 2016, he had reportedly been collecting complaint documents from the Son La victims and submitted them on their behalf to relevant stakeholders. All records of his involvement with the Son La victims were also allegedly seized by the Investigation Security Agency.

On 14 January 2022, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s lawyer visited him in prison and reported that he had been on hunger strike since 10 January 2022, to protest his prolonged incommunicado detention, the denial of family visits and denial of his request to be released on bail. Mr. Dang Dinh Bach has reportedly lost a lot of weight since his arrest.

On 18 January 2022, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s wife and his lawyer met with the attorney on the case at the Hanoi Court to submit a request to pay a fine of VND 500 million (22,000 USD) before the trial date. However, they were allegedly told that they need to ask for the judge’s signature to be allowed to do so. They have still not received the judge’s approval needed to pay the fine at the time of writing this communication as the Hanoi Court disapproved, although they approved in other economic court proceedings.

On 24 January 2022, Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s trial took place, when the People’s Court of Hanoi sentenced him to 5 years in prison with no probation, for alleged corporate income tax evasion under clause 3, article 200 of the 2015 Penal Code. According to the investigation, 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 investigation reportedly claimed that “in the process of receiving grants from abroad, the LPSD Centre does not carry out the approval procedures and is not approved by the competent authorities in accordance with the law.”

However, this law’s violation is not regulated by any article of Tax Law and Criminal Code as a criminal case. Moreover, the total revenue of the LPSD Centre which was deemed “foreign non-governmental aid”, is “exempted tax” not “payable tax” following article 4, clause 7 of the decree No. 218/2013/ND‑CP and article 8, clause 15 of the circular 78/2014/TT-BTC dated 18 June 2014 on guiding decree 218/2013/ND-CP. All the grants that the LPSD Centre received were reportedly used for proper purposes, and were confirmed by the foreign grant sponsors, and it must therefore not pay the corporate income tax.

Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s lawyers have reportedly not been allowed to see him since the trial on 24 January 2022, and his family has not been allowed to see him since he was detained on 24 June 2021. It is also unknown if Mr. Dang Dinh Bach has been transferred to another prison after the trial, nor are there any updates on Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s current physical and mental health. According to the information received, he remained in pre-trial detention at detention centre No. 1, Tu Liem District, Hanoi, although there are reports that he has been moved to another detention centre since his trial. There are reports that Mr. Dang Dinh Bach will appeal the verdict of his trial.

Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s hearing on 24 January 2022 reportedly failed to meet international standards for a fair trial and Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code: the trial did not have witnesses and assessors, did not give the basis and reason for the amount of 1.3 billion VND (57,265.00 USD) in taxes for LSPD. There is also reason to believe that Mr. Dang Dinh Bach was imprisoned for his activities, given the fact that according to Viet Nam’s laws, all non-profit non-government organizations (NGOs) are not subject to tax.

CONCERNS 

In the communication we expresses serious concern regarding the detention and criminal charges against Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy and Mr. Dang Dinh Bach, in connection with the exercise of their freedom of expression and their peaceful and legitimate human rights and environmental rights activities, respectively. We are particularly concerned regarding the revocation of the suspension of Ms. Huynh Thuc Vy’s prison sentence until her youngest child turned three years’ old, without clarification of the alleged actions on her behalf that violated the terms of the suspension. We are also concerned that that charge of “tax evasion” is being used against a non-profit organization whose work focuses on environmental protection.

Furthermore, we expressed our deep concern regarding allegations that Mr. Dang Dinh Bach’s hearing on 24 January 2022 reportedly failed to meet international standards for a fair trial and Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code. Subsequently we are concerned regarding the sentencing of Mr. Dang Dinh Bach for alleged corporate income tax evasion, despite all non-profit non-government organizations (NGOs) not being subject to tax, according to Viet Nam’s laws.

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