Vietnam’s Prisoners of Conscience – 2023 Report

Viet Tan

October 25, 2023

On January 1, 2023, Vietnam joined the United Nations Human Rights Council after an intense lobbying effort within the international community. Some hoped that this would lead to greater respect for human rights by the Vietnamese government, while others raised alarm about the contradicting nature of the situation. In particular, a country notorious for human rights violations is now tasked in the UN with promoting these rights internationally.

The situation for human rights defenders in Vietnam worsened in 2023. The Vietnamese regime no longer only targeted political critics, who have often been silenced and imprisoned under restrictive laws meant to protect an authoritarian state’s control over society, such as Article 117 (propaganda against the state and the Communist Party) or Article 331 (abuse of democratic freedoms).

Some members of civil society, who were previously authorized to work legally in Vietnam, are now also victims of the communist regime. Under the pretext of tax evasion, these civil society leaders have been arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. For instance, Hoang Thi Minh Hong, a climate activist and founder of an environmental organization called CHANGE VN, was sentenced to 3 years in prison at the end of September. A few weeks earlier, Ngo Thi To Nhien, an energy expert leading the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (VIET), was arrested right after President Biden visited Vietnam. Ngo Thi To Nhien was involved in the implementation of a $15 billion plan funded by a group of Western countries and international institutions to assist Hanoi in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Hanoi has extended its repression beyond its borders. On April 13, 2023, blogger Thai Van Duong was kidnapped from Thailand, where he was seeking refuge and awaiting resettlement in a third country. Thai Van Duong was forcibly returned to Vietnam, where he faces charges of “propaganda against the state” (Article 117). On August 18, 2023, the Vietnamese police issued an arrest warrant for Paulus Le Son, an activist who had already spent 4 years in prison and is a political refugee in the United States since 2018.

For several years, Hanoi has used activists as bargaining chips, if not hostages, in its relations with Western countries. The regime imprisons hundreds of activists and releases them gradually as part of its negotiations with Western democracies to demonstrate its “goodwill.” This is how some of these political prisoners  have been conveniently released and deported to foreign countries shortly before the visits of Western leaders to Vietnam. The most recent examples are activists Nguyen Bac Truyen and Mai Phan Loi, who were released just before the arrival of U.S. President Joe Biden to Vietnam on September 10, 2023.

Vietnam is currently courted by many Western countries in an effort to isolate China. Given these geostrategic considerations, the question of human rights should not be disregarded. For peace and stability in the region, a , a truly free and democratic Vietnam that follows international norms and conventions is what will make a trustworthy long-term partner.

Nearly 200 activists are imprisoned in Vietnam due to their political opinions. The following biographies of Vietnamese prisoners of conscience are not exhaustive, but they provide an overview of individuals who dare to protect human rights and challenge the authoritarian regime, even at the risk of spending decades in prison.

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