Democracy Campaigner Tran Duc Thach Convicted of Subversion, Sentenced to 12 Years in Prison and Three Years of Probation

Prisoner of Conscience Tran Duc Thach


Defend the Defenders, December 15, 2020


On December 15, the People’s Court of Vietnam’s central province of Nghe An convicted try local human rights defender and democracy fighter Tran Duc Thach on allegation of subversion under Article 109 of the Criminal Code, sentencing him to 12 years in prison and three years of probation.

The first-instance hearing lasted only three hours, said Hanoi-based lawyer Ha Huy Son, adding Mr. Thach’s wife and younger brother were permitted to be in the courtroom to obseve the trial. It is likely no foreign diplomats have been present in the hearing.

The 68-year-old activist did not admit his wrongdoing but declared to appeal the court’s verdict, saying he just exercized his basic rights to protect the country amid China’s increasing aggressiveness in the East Sea (South China Sea) and voice against human rights abuse.

He has not fully recovered from high blood pressure and other diseases, said attorney Son who visited him one day prior to his trial in police custody. His trial was initially scheduled on November 30 but it was cancelled due to his poor health.

Mr. Thach, born in 1952, is a former prisoner of conscience from the central province of Nghe An, the home of late communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Thach is a founding member of the unregistered group Brotherhood for Democracy (BFD).

On April 23, security forces arrested Mr. Thach on allegation of conducting “Activities against the people’s government,” with the highest punishment of 20 years in prison or even death penalty. Police conducted searching for his house, confiscating a laptop, cell phones, a camera as well as VND9 million ($380) and $400, according to his family.

The state-controlled media reported that Mr. Thach has been continuously posting and sharing numerous articles on Facebook with content to distort the regime’s policies with the aim to trigger social disorders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was arrested for the first time in 2009 and sentenced to three years in jail and three years of probation on a charge of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the Penal Code, Article 117 under the current Penal Code, for claiming Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracels) and Truong Sa (Spratlys), the two archipelagos also claimed by China, and demanding human rights improvement in the communist nation. Particularly, Thach, together with activists Vu Van Hung and Nguyen Xuan Nghia hang out a banner which states “Hoang Sa and Truong Sa belong to Vietnam” at Mai Dich Bridge in the capital city of Hanoi. His fellows were also jailed with lengthy sentences.

Thach was an officer of the communist army participating in the Vietnam War. After leaving the communist army in 1975, Thach wrote a memoir named “Obsessive mass grave” to describe how communist soldiers assaulted innocent civil people while invading South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. In 1976, he self-immolated to protest unfair policies of authorities in Nghe An province and Dien Chau district. Due to the act, his face was deformed.

Vietnam’s communist regime has intensified its crackdown on local dissent from late 2015 when the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam began to prepare for its 12th National Congress. More than 100 activists were arrested and charged with controversial allegations in the National Security provisions of the Penal Code 1999 or the Criminal Code 2015, many of them were sentenced to lengthy imprisonments of between five and 20 years.

BFD is the group that suffered the most from the ongoing persecution campaign of the communist regime. Its nine key members were sentenced to between seven and 15 years in prison, and only two of them, human rights attorney Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha were freed but forced to live in exile in Germany. Thach’s latest arrest is related to BFD. In 2017, when Vietnam’s police arrested six key members of the group, he was summoned to a police station and interrogated for days about his activities in the organization.

After Thach’s arrest, Vietnam’s communist regime has detained a number of activists and bloggers and charged them with controversial crimes in the National Security provisions of the Criminal Code. The detainees included Vice President of the unregistered professional group Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) Nguyen Tuong Thuy and its young editor Le Huu Minh Tuan, well-known blogger Pham Chi Thanh (aka Pham Thanh), and prominent human rights defender and political blogger Pham Doan Trang, who was taken into custody on the day Vietnam and the US conducted the 24th Annual Human Rights Dialogue. All of them were charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” for their posts critical to the communist regime.

Mr. Thach is likely not the last activist being convicted and sentenced this year. Vietnam’s communist regime has a plan to try two Facebookers Huynh Anh Khoa and Nguyen Dang Thuong on the charge of “abusing democratic freedom” under Article 331 of the country’s Criminal Code. Mr. Khoa and Mr. Thuong were arrested by security forces in Ho Chi Minh City on June 13 this year in relation to a group on Facebook in which its members held discussions about Vietnam’s socio-economic issues. The two guys are admins of a Facebook group named Bàn luận Kinh tế-Chính trị (Economic-Political Discussion) with 46,000 followers. However, the group was closed immediately after the arrests of its two admins.

According to well-known blogger Le Nguyen Huong Tra who is lives in Germany, Khoa and Thuong are admins of a Facebook group named Bàn luận Kinh tế-Chính trị (Economic-Political Discussion) with 46,000 followers. However, the group was closed immediately after the arrests of its two admins. Their trial was planned on December 7 but suspended due to health issue of one of the two defendants.

As the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam prepares its 13th National Congress scheduled for January 2021, the regime continues its crackdown on local dissent and tightens control on social media, especially Facebook, the largest social network in Vietnam with around 60 million accounts.

So far this year, Vietnam has convicted 17 activists of subversion, “conducting anti-state propaganda” and “abusing democratic freedom” or “causing public disorders,” sentencing them to a total 90 years and three months in prison and 29 years of probation.

The regime is holding 31 other activists in pre-trial detention, most of them have been kept incommunicado since their arrest. Among them are prominent human rights defender and political blogger Pham Doan Trang, President of the professional group Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) Pham Chi Dung and his deputy Nguyen Tuong Thuy.

Vietnam is the biggest prison for prisoners of conscience in Southeast Asia. Amnesty International said the number of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam is 170 while according to Defend the Defenders’ latest statistic, the number is 262 as of December 15.