Vietnam Leading Human Rights Defender Pham Doan Trang Arrested and Charged with “Conducting Anti-state Propaganda” as Communists Hold Plenum to Prepare for 13th National Congress


Defend the Defenders, October 7, 2020


Vietnam’s security forces have detained prominent human rights defender and democracy campaigner Pham Doan Trang as the communist government has tightened control to clear all political opposition while the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is preparing for its 13th National Congress scheduled for early 2021.

Ms. Trang was arrested in the late night of October 6, few hours after the 24th Annual Human Rights Dialogue between the US and Vietnam held in Hanoi, when she was in a rent apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, the southern economic hub she has lived in the past three years while being chased by the Vietnamese security forces. According to her landlord, during the arrest, police officers showed the arrest warrant on which she was charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the Criminal Code with a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison if she is convicted.

The state-controlled media has yet covered the arrest. It is expected that the Ministry of Public Security will announce the information about her detention soon as she is among high-risk human rights defenders in the Southeast Asian nation.

Ms. Trang, 42, is a former journalist for the official streamlined newswire VietnamNet. She left the outlet and went to study in the US and involved in activism, becoming one of the leading figures working for human rights and multi-party democracy in Vietnam.

She is a prominent and outspoken journalist, activist, and blogger whose writing covers a wide range of topics including LGBT rights, women’s rights, environmental issues, the territorial conflict between Vietnam and China, police brutality, suppression of activists, and law and human rights. Her book, Chính trị Bình dân (Politics for the Common People), a kind of primer for budding activists, was published in samizdat form in September 2017. She has produced a number of political books such as Phản kháng phi bạo lực (Non-violent Resistance), Politics of Police State, and Cẩm nang nuôi tù (Handbook for Prisoners’ Families). She is one of the authors of Việ Nam & Tranh chấp Biển Đông (Vietnam and the Conflict on the East Sea), published by Tri Thuc Publishing House in Vietnam.

On September 25, she and Vietnamese American Willian Nguyen publicized the 3rd edition of Dong Tam Report, the comprehensive report about the bloody attack of Vietnam’s security forces in Dong Tam commune, Hanoi on January 9 this year and the first-instance hearing to try 29 land petitioners who were charged with “murders” of three police officers and “resisting on-duty state officials” during the raid. It is worth noting that three out of the five co-authors of the first and the second editions of Dong Tam Report, former prisoner of conscience Can Thi Theu and her two sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu were arrested on June 24, also charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda.”

Trang is also a street activist who is committed to peaceful protest. She has joined demonstrations outside police stations and at airports when fellow activists were detained, participated in nationalist protests about China’s violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty in the East Sea (South China Sea), and pro-environmental marches. She has been beaten and detained many times in the past five years.

Trang is the editor for the website Vietnam Right Now, which aims to distribute “objective, accurate, and timely information on the current social and political conditions in Vietnam today.” She is also a co-founder and an editor of the Vietnam Legal Initiative, a US-based NGO working to promote human rights, civil rights, and democracy in Vietnam.

Her writing and activism have addressed a broad human rights agenda, from the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and other rights, including the right to remain silent. As a journalist and blogger, she also focuses on the role of media in social and political life and remains especially concerned with freedom of information on the internet and freedom of the press.

In 2018, Trang was awarded the Homo Homini Award by the Czech-based human rights organization People In Need which considers her “one of the leading figures of the contemporary Vietnamese dissent. She uses plain words to fight the lack of freedom, corruption, and the despotism of the communist regime.”

Last year, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) presented her with Award For Work to Improve Journalistic Freedom. In March this year, the Liberal Publishing House under her leadership was honored with Prix Voltaire by the International Publishers’ Association.

Responding to her arrest, Phil Robertson, deputy chief of Southeast Asia Office of Human Rights Watch stated “Vietnam’s scorched earth response to political dissent is on display for all to see with the arrest of prominent blogger and author Pham Doan Trang. Despite suffering years of systemic government harassment, including severe physical attacks, she has remained faithful to her principles of peaceful advocacy for human rights and democracy. Her thoughtful approach to reforms, and demands for people’s real participation in their governance, are messages the Vietnam government should listen to and respect, not repress. Human Rights Watch strongly condemns Vietnam’s arrest of Pham Doan Trang. Every day she spends behind bars is a grave injustice that violates Vietnam’s international human rights commitments and brings dishonor to the government. Governments around the world and the UN must prioritize her case, speak out loudly and consistently on her behalf, and demand her immediate and unconditional release.”

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam’s Central Committee is conducting the 13th Plenum in Hanoi on October 5-10 to prepare for the party 13th National Congress slated in early January. Months ahead of the congress which takes for every five years, Vietnam’s security forces have tightened social security and intensified crackdown on political dissidents, social activists, and human rights defenders.

So far this year, Vietnam has arrested 25 activists and 29 Dong Tam land petitioners, raising the number of prisoners of conscience to 258, according to the latest statistics of Defend the Defenders.