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‘Severely punished’: Vietnam environmental activists face crackdown

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Hoang Thi Minh Hong had worried for months she could become the next environmental activist swept up in Vietnam’s crackdown, so she closed her NGO and began keeping a low profile.

But it wasn’t enough, and last month she became the fifth environmentalist jailed for tax evasion, in what activists see as a campaign to silence them.

Her conviction came less than a year after a group of donors including the United States and European Union pledged to mobilise $15.5 billion in funding as part of a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) to help Vietnam switch to clean energy faster.

The deal was hailed by US President Joe Biden as part of Vietnam’s “ambitious clean energy future”.

“Hong doesn’t deserve a single day in jail, because she’s innocent,” her husband Hoang Vinh Nam, 54, told AFP.

“She worked for the environment, for wildlife, for a better place. And now she’s been severely punished for doing that.”

Just a week before Hong’s conviction, Ngo Thi To Nhien, director of an independent energy policy think tank working on the JETP implementation, and a leading Vietnamese energy expert, was also arrested. She was accused of appropriating documents from a state-owned power firm.

The country’s communist government tolerates no opposition to its one-party rule and regularly jails critics, but its recent focus on environmental activists appears to carry a particular message, said Jonathan London, an expert on contemporary Vietnam.

“What I think we’re seeing is a concerted effort… to declare that all matters of public concern are to be addressed by the party and its state alone,” he told AFP.

Environmental activism could pose a singular threat because it targets powerful economic interests, which in Vietnam “are always closely affiliated with state power”, he added.

– ‘Shut his mouth’ –

The arrests began in 2021 with the detention of Dang Dinh Bach, a legal adviser and NGO worker who worked on coal issues. He was sentenced to five years in prison on evidence his wife Tran Phuong Thao said was fabricated.

“He pursued justice and he was on the side of the weak,” the 29-year-old told AFP. “But his work touched upon the interests of companies and authorities, and they wanted to shut his mouth.”

In January 2022, authorities detained Nguy Thi Khanh, founder of Green ID, one of Vietnam’s most prominent environmental organisations.

She was an early and rare voice challenging Hanoi’s plans to increase coal power to fuel economic development. She was jailed later that year.

The 88 Project, which advocates for freedom of expression in Vietnam, found “serious irregularities” in the way criminal procedures and sentences were applied to Bach and Khanh — as well as two other jailed environmental activists: Mai Phan Loi, and Bach Hung Duong.

Bach received one of the heaviest sentences for someone convicted of tax evasion, despite the amount involved being much lower than in other cases with similar sentences, the group said.

Pham Thu Hang, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s foreign ministry, strongly rejected claims of a “politically motivated” crackdown on environmentalists, saying each individual had violated national law.

Khanh and Loi were both released from jail this year.

But Bach is still in prison, has been intimidated and beaten, and is refusing to pay back the $55,000 he is alleged to owe, said his wife Thao.

Authorities have threatened to confiscate the apartment where she lives with their two-year-old son, she said.

 – JETP ‘not punitive’ –

Washington said it was “deeply concerned” by Hong’s conviction, and has urged Vietnam “to ensure its actions are consistent with… its international commitments, including to consult with non-government stakeholders as part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership”.

“We have had numerous conversations at every step along the way about respect for human rights and our concerns about the environmental activists,” a US government official told AFP.

Still, there has been little sign the International Partners Group (IPG) — the coalition of donors signed up to the JETP — see the arrests as jeopardising the agreement.

The arrests are “a major hindrance to Vietnam’s ability to not only achieve the JETP goals… but more broadly Vietnam’s own goals to achieve net zero”, a government official from an IPG country told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But, the JETP “is not set up in a way that is punitive”.

That is little comfort to Vietnam’s community of environmental activists who remain “very worried”, Hong’s husband Nam said.

One NGO worker, who declined to be named, said several accountants in the industry had quit their jobs, fearful of putting a foot wrong with regard to Vietnam’s complex tax laws.

Nam said Hong wrote to the tax department more than a year before her arrest and was told that CHANGE, her NGO, did not owe anything.

But now she has to pay back $300,000 — “more than the total income she received in the last ten years”, he said.

“It’s an injustice.”

By Alice Philipson – Agence France Presse – October 25, 2023 

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