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International Women’s Day: the Women Vietnam wants the world to forget

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PARIS, 8 March 2024 (VCHR) – As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on 8th March and Vietnam bids for a second term on the UN Human Rights Council, the voices of women calling for change in Vietnam are systematically and arbitrarily suppressed. The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) wishes to pay tribute today to the scores of women languishing in Vietnam’s prisons on account of their actions for human rights, and the hundreds of everyday “sheroes” – the wives, mothers and daughters of prisoners of conscience who face harassments and intimidation as they struggle to feed their families and support their loved ones, often imprisoned hundreds of miles away from their homes.

There are at least 200 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, more than 30 of whom are women. Vietnam claims that these women have “threatened national security” or “caused harm to the nation”. In reality, they were arrested and prosecuted in violation of the Vietnamese Constitution, national legislation and international human rights law, simply for peacefully advocating fundamental rights, social justice and a clean and healthy environment. This systematic stifling of dissenting voices reflects a long-standing and consistent policy, formulated at the top echelons of the Communist Party of Vietnam, to suppress human rights and subvert democratic freedoms. This policy was updated and explained in intricate detail in the Politburo’s secret Directive 24, revealed in a recent report.

“By stifling these essential voices, Vietnam is not only violating its binding international commitments, but also jeopardizing its own future” said VCHR Vice-President Võ Trần Nhật. “A clean environment cannot be built without environmentalists, a society respectful of human rights cannot exist without human rights defenders”. He added: “The Trưng Sisters, who fought for Vietnam’s independence from Chinese domination in 40 AD are celebrated as ‘national heroines’. If they had lived today, the Trưng sisters would probably be behind bars.”

We highlight below portraits of some of the courageous women Vietnam wants the world to forget. Some are high profile, others less well-known. We call for the immediate and unconditional release of these women, along with all those who are arbitrarily detained in Vietnam.

Nguyễn Thúy Hạnh: suffering cancer treatment in detention

Nguyen Thuy Hanh

Nguyễn Thúy Hạnh, born in 1963, is a business woman and human rights defender. In 2016, she ran as an independent candidate in the National Assembly, and since then has been consistently harassed. In 2017, she set up the “50K Fund” to support prisoners of conscience and their families, raising over 20,000 $US to support the victims of a land-rights clash in Dong Tâm village. The authorities froze the account in 2020, and arrested her in April 2021 on charges of “anti-state propaganda” (Article 117 of the Criminal Code).Since April 2022, Thúy Hạnh has been detained at the Hanoi Central Institute of Forensic Psychiatry for compulsory treatment of depression, where she shares a 15m² room with seven inmates, most of whom have committed serious crimes. The treatment was ordered by authorities with no informed consent from Thúy Hạnh or her family.

In January 2024, she was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer. Her treatment consists of five sessions of radiation therapy and one session of chemotherapy per week. Every weekday afternoon, she is transported from detention at the Central Institute of Forensic Psychiatry to Hospital K for the treatment. Her husband, Huỳnh Ngọc Chênh, who is only allowed to see his wife briefly, says she is in great pain when she returns to the detention centre, and often cannot keep down her food.

The continued detention of Nguyễn Thúy Hạnh is inhumane and also a violation of Vietnamese law. Articles 29b and Article 62 of the 2015 Criminal Code stipulate that prisoners suffering from terminal illnesses are exempt from serving prison sentences and Article 67 of the Code states that those who contract severe illnesses in detention “are exempt from serving prison sentences until recovery”.

Định Thị Thu Thuỷ: seven years in prison for “satirizing” the Communist Party

Dinh Thi Thu Thuy

Định Thị Thu Thuỷ,born in 1982, is an environmental activist and an aquaculture engineer from the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. She holds a master’s degree in aquatic pathology. In June 2018, she was temporarily arrested and beaten by Police for participating in peaceful demonstrations against the Law on Special Economic Zones and the Law on Cybersecurity. An advocate of free expression, Thủy used social media to criticize the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the “Formosa” pollution scandal and other social issues. She also posted satirical poems by her father on an anti-corruption campaign launched by the Vietnamese President and Secretary-general of the ruling Communist Party, Nguyễn Phú Trọng.

On 18 April 2020, she was arrested on charges of “satirizing and ridiculing” the Party leadership, and detained incommunicado in Hậu Giang Detention Centre for almost eight months, with no access to legal counsel. At a hearing on January 21 2021 that lasted only four hours, she was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of “making, storing or spreading information, materials or items for the purpose of opposing the State”, (Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code). The only evidence brought against her were five Facebook posts which received only 130 “Likes” and 50 “Shares”.

During the 8-month pre-trial detention, Thủy’s mental and physical health deteriorated. The prison authorities refused to let her see her son, and subjected her to extremely harsh detention conditions. She was briefly hospitalised in 2021 for heart problems. Định Thị Thu Thuỷ is currently detained in An Phước prison in Bình Dương Province.

Trần Thị Tuyết Diệu: a blogger who “harmed the nation”

Tran Thi Tuyet Dieu

Trần Thị Tuyết Diệu born in 1988, is a journalist and blogger. She worked at the local State-run newspaper in her home province of Phú Yên before being forced by the paper to resign in 2017. She moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2019 and worked as an independent journalist, using social media and other online platforms to post stories about official corruption and other social issues. In 2020, she was abruptly arrested as she visited her parents in Phú Yên and charged with “defaming” the party’s leadership, and “slandering” revolutionary history.

At a three-hour trial on 22 March 2021, she was convicted of “propaganda against the State” (Article 117 of the Criminal Code). She pleaded innocence, saying that her blogs had harmed no-one. The court replied that they had “caused harm to the nation”. According to her lawyer, this is a tactic commonly used by the courts in Vietnam to avoid producing specific harmed persons as witnesses during trials. She was sentenced to eight years in prison. The verdict was upheld on appeal in September 2021.

Ngô Thị Tố Nhiên: victim of the government crackdown on environmental rights defenders

Ngo Thi To Nhien

Ngô Thị Tố Nhiên, 48, is a researcher and consultant, Executive Director of the prominent think tank Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition Social Enterprise (VIETSE). She had formerly worked for several ministries in Vietnam and international organizations such as the World Bank, the European Union, USAID and the United Nations, and was currently working on the implementation plan for Vietnam’s just energy transition partnership (JETP), a 15.5 billion USD project funded by G7 to help reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

On 15 September 2023, three months after the arrest of Hòang Thị Minh Hồng (see below), she was arrested and charged with “appropriating, trading, destruction (…) of documents of a state agency or organization” (Article 342 of the 2015 Criminal Code). Police raided VIETSE’s offices and later forced the organisation to close down. Ms. Nhiên’s arrest has been widely denounced as arbitrary and politically-motivated, another step in the government crack-down on environmental rights defenders in Vietnam. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.

Hoang Thi Minh Hong

Hòang Thị Minh Hồng is founder of CHANGE, an NGO advocating action on climate change, the environment and wild-life protection. She is a high-profile activist, Obama Foundation scholar, listed in 2019 by Forbes among the 50 most influential women in Vietnam. She was forced to close down CHANGE in 2022 after harassment by the government. Hồng was arrested in June 2023 for “tax evasion” and sentenced to three years in prison in September 2023 at a trial that lasted only three hours.

Pham Doan Trang

Phạm Đoan Trang is an award-winning writer, journalist and pro-democracy advocate, founder of the online magazine Luật Khoa. She has suffered frequent beatings in police custody during her many years of activism. In 2020, Trang was arrested for “anti-State propaganda” and sentenced to nine years in prison at an unfair trial in Hanoi in December 2021. She is detained in An Phước Prison, 1,500 km away from her home, and is reportedly in very poor health.

Can Thi Theu

Cấn Thị Thêu is a leading land rights activist and former prisoner of conscience. She has suffered repeated assaults and harassment for her activism. In May 2021, Cấn Thị Thêu and her son Trịnh Bá Tư were sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of “anti-State propaganda.” Her other son,Trịnh Bá Phương was also sentenced to 10 years in prison in December 2021 for engaging in land rights protests. She is currently detained in Prison No. 5 in Thanh Hóa province.

Tran Thi Xuan

Trần Thị Xuân, born in 1976, is a human rights defender and member of the Brotherhood for Democracy.She was actively engaged in charity work in her local Catholic community, and spoke out against the 2016 Formosa steel plant pollution disaster. She was arrested on 17 October 2017 and charged under Article 79 (now 109) of the Criminal Code for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” She was held incommunicado for five months before her trial on 12 April 2018, and had no lawyer or means to prepare her defense. The closed-door trial was held without any prior communications to her family. Trần Thị Xuân was sentenced to nine years in prison and five years of house arrest. She is currently detained in No. 5 Prison, Thanh Hóa Province. She suffers from a kidney disorder, and is reportedly in poor health.

VCHR calls upon Vietnam, as member of the UN Human Rights Council, state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and signatory of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) to uphold its binding international commitments to respect human rights, including environmental and worker rights, and immediately release all women arbitrarily detained in Vietnam ;

VCHR calls upon all UN member states participating in the Fourth Cycle of Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva on 7 May 2024 :

  • to call upon Vietnam to urgently abrogate “national security” provisions in  the 2015 criminal Code, in particular articles 109, 117 and 331 used to arrest and incarcerate individuals for the legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and freedom of religion or belief ;
  • to call by name for the release of human rights defenders, bloggers and environmental rights defenders arbitrarily detained in Vietnam.

This post is also available in: French Vietnamese

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