Imagine, for a moment, that you are a prominent environmental defender sentenced to five years in prison on false tax charges by a country that is increasingly trying to silence activists and academics.
Then imagine, if you can, that on the second Anniversary of your arrest, you take the bold and brave step of a full-blown hunger strike, saying that you will only end it if you are released or die. It is not a decision to be taken lightly, if at all.
But it is a decision that Dang Dinh Bach, a prominent environmental lawyer in Vietnam, has just made. Bach is the last person who should be in prison. He is the founder of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Centre (LPSD), and has dedicated his life to protecting communities from harmful pollution, phasing out plastic waste, and supporting the government’s transition to clean energy.
In January 2022, Bach was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges of “tax evasion” after leading a campaign to reduce Vietnam’s reliance on dirty coal. Bach founded the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Centre, which worked to protect communities from pollution and plastic waste and to support the government’s transition to clean energy. Everyone knows the charges were meant to silence Bach. United Nations experts suggest that Bach’s prosecution was politically motivated. He is one of a number of environmental activists who the Vietnamese authorities have imprisoned for speaking out against the country’s coal policies.
Journalist Mai Phan Loi, the Head of the Center for Media in Educating Community, also received a four-year prison term for tax fraud. Another leading activist, Bach Hung Duong, was also sentenced to two years in prison. A year ago, Nguy Thi Khanh, one of the world’s leading environmental activists and the first-ever recipient from Vietnam of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, was also sentenced to prison on trumped-up tax evasion charges.
She was a leading advocate against the country’s coal industry. Last month, Khanh was released, just before the country’s long-delayed national power plan, which pledged no new coal plants after 2030, was released.
Khanh’s release has not stopped the brutal crackdown against environmental defenders. Earlier this month, Vietnam arrested yet another well-known environmentalist and climate activist, Hoang Thi Minh Hong. The arrest of Hoang Thi Minh Hong, the fifth activist in Vietnam to have been arrested on tax evasion charges, was condemned by Human Rights Watch and the UN.
Hong’s arrest came just after a week after the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released an opinion regarding Bach, finding his arrest a “violation of international law and called for his release. It too raised serious concerns about a “systemic problem with arbitrary detention” of environmental defenders in Vietnam.
Speaking in response, Kate Holcombe, Managing Attorney of the Defending Defenders Program at Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), stated “The Working Group took a hard look at Bach’s case and found that his arrest has no legal basis and violates his fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association. It also found that his right to a fair trial was violated and that he is being discriminated against for his environmental activism.”
Indeed, Bach (pictured left) has always maintained his innocence and has already engaged in multiple hunger strikes to protest his unfair detention.
He has emphasized that this new hunger strike is not simply to demand justice for himself but also to insist on the rule of law and that all jailed human rights and environmental activists be released.
Speaking recently from prison, Bach said: “I have witnessed so many painful stories of poverty and terrible diseases that weigh on abused communities in Vietnam.”
He continued that people are “deprived of their land and livelihoods and do not have opportunities to speak out for justice and the right to be human in the face of environmental pollution, especially in places with coal-fired power plants across the country.”
“In order to conceal the truth and threaten the voices of people, the Vietnamese authorities have arrested, convicted and unjustly detained environmental and human rights activists in defiance of national and international law,” he added.
Civil society groups are standing in solidarity with Bach. Since his arrest, there has been a sustained campaign calling for his release. Earlier this year, in January, on the first anniversary of his arrest, international NGOs called for his immediate release.
In late May, the Vietnamese Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT), along with eighty-six other national and international organisations, again called for Bach’s release.
They urged all governments, multilateral institutions and others invested in a just energy transition for Vietnam to join them in calling for Bach’s release too. But they have gone further, too. They also announced that “in his own spirit of nonviolent and peaceful protest, we are launching in solidarity with him a relay hunger strike” from now until June 24 “to raise awareness about this extreme injustice and call for his release.”
I, together with colleagues at Oil Change International and dozens of organizations around the world, will be fasting for 24 hours, standing in solidarity with Bach. I hope you do too.
Together we can let Bach know that he is not alone. Together we can #StandwithBach and demand the release of climate and environmental activists in Vietnam and the protection of civil society space required for a just energy transition.
For more information, visit the Stand With Bach campaign website.