By Anna Nguyen – On 24 May 2009, blogger and ICT entrepreneur, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, was arrested for ‘promoting anti-government propaganda’ under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. Prior to his arrest, he had established a blog that contained his thoughts on economic and social issues in Vietnam.
After spending almost 8 months in custody, with limited access to counsel and family members, and only after a one-day trial, Thuc – along with three other activists, Le Cong Dinh, Nguyen Tien Trung and Le Thang Long – were prosecuted at the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court for ‘conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’ under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. Thuc was sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment followed by 5 years of house arrest; the longest sentence ever issued for these actions, while Dinh, Trung, and Long received from 5 to 7 years in prison.
In contrast to the criminal charges he was convicted of, Thuc’s activities consisted only of maintaining a blog that peacefully called for political and economic reform in Vietnam. A far reach from activities supposedly ‘aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’.
Various international organizations have condemned the sentence, including the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, who concluded that Thuc’s arrest and detainment violated indoctrinated rights including freedom of opinion and expression, liberty and security of person, and right to association. They requested the Vietnamese government to immediately release him and provide him compensation for damages caused. Amnesty International, moreover, has adopted Thuc as a Prisoner of Conscience.
Support of the international community
6 years after Thuc was first arrested, he still remains in prison. 6 years later, injustice continues. Although his three companions, Le Cong Dinh, Nguyen Tien Trung and Le Thang Long have since been released, the international community continues to call for Thuc’s release.
Recently, 20 international organizations, including the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International and Freedom House, along with 16 organizations within Vietnam, have collaborated together to release a joint statement on the 6th anniversary of Thuc’s arrest, calling for his immediate release.
“I feel a sense of empowerment when we ordinary people come together. To struggle against such an institutional force as that of a government, especially when it is an overbearing one, is something that we often find discouraging, if not intimidating”, states Alex Truong, Thuc’s 25-year-old nephew, in response to the astounding support received for his uncle’s release.
Countries such as England, the United States, Switzerland, Burma and India have all stood together to urge the Vietnamese government to immediately release Thuc. “The fact that civil society groups from many places around the world join together to call for my uncle’s release does send a strong message to the Vietnamese government”, said Alex. The collaboration not only highlights the significance of the right to freedom of opinion and expression but the injustice of Thuc’s 16-year sentence.
Thuc’s 16-year sentence comes at no surprise to those who understand how repressive the Vietnamese government is when it comes to independent critical voices and political dissidents.
Laws and regulations in Vietnam limit the ability for citizens to share information and criminalize those who dare to challenge the state. The laws also give government authorities absolute control to arbitrarily arrest and imprison those trying to exercise their freedom of speech. Independent writers, bloggers, cyber dissidents, and rights activists who question the government’s legitimacy or domestic policies continue to be ruthlessly suppressed, surveyed, arbitrarily detained, harassed, prosecuted and imprisoned.
However, what comes as a surprise is that while Vietnam stands on a pedestal and claims they have and will continue to protect and respect the right to freedom of expression, Thuc’s conviction for peacefully expressing his opinion remains unturned.
Vietnam is a signatory to treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects rights such as freedom of expression, and in 2014, Vietnam accepted 31 recommendations calling for the respect and protection of freedom of expression at the Universal Period Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council. These acts by the Vietnamese government are further contradicted when hundreds of Vietnamese political dissidents remain in prison for peacefully challenging the state.
Fight for justice continues
Despite the Vietnamese government’s stance on Thuc’s conviction, Thuc’s family continues to fight for justice and his ultimate release. Recently, a complaint was filed to the National Assembly, the Prime Minister and the President, stating that Thuc was tortured during police investigation and has requested his conviction be overturned.
International campaigns are also being waged on Thuc’s behalf, including an online portal to spread awareness for his case.
As the joint statement outlines, ‘only when the relevant authorities have taken the necessary steps so that his conviction is overturned, will justice to Thuc be restored.’
For Thuc’s sake, this should be sooner rather than later.
Anna Nguyen is a Vietnamese Australian human rights lawyer now working in Manila, the Philippines.