Hoang Thi Minh Hong C: RFA

The wheels of oppression have turned again. We have known for a while that Vietnam has been systematically silencing its environmental critics under false pretenses.

Despite international condemnation of the country every time it tries to silence its critics, Vietnam has generated further outrage by arresting and jailing another two prominent environmental activists.

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden visited Vietnam, where he promised to work with the country to “tackle the climate crisis and to accelerate Vietnam’s clean energy transition.”

But four days after Biden departed Hanoi, Vietnam arrested Ngo Thi To Nhien, the Executive Director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (VIET).

Ngo Thi To Nhien had been working with the UN to implement a USD 15.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership project to phase out fossil fuels, which the United States, Canada, Japan, United Kingdom, European Union, and some European countries are funding.

She has also worked with the World Bank, the European Union, the United Nations, and the Asian Development Bank.

According to 88 Project, Nhien was arrested for “unknown reasons.” The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also said it is concerned about Ngo Thi To Nhien’s arrest.

To make matters worse, late last week, a court sentenced the well-known environmentalist Hoang Thi Minh Hong to three years in prison for tax evasion. The trial lasted just three hours. The court also fined her the equivalent of USD 4,000 and told her to pay back more than USD 274,000 in taxes. The charge carries a maximum of seven years jail term plus a fine.

Back in May this year, Vietnam had arrested Hoang Thi Minh Hong under the false pretenses of tax evasion. Hoang Thi Minh Hong, the founder and executive director of CHANGE, is well known in the country for fighting against climate change, including bringing the Earth Hour initiative from Australia to Vietnam. She is also the first Vietnamese woman to set foot in Antarctica.

At the time of her arrest, Hoang Thi Minh Hong was the fifth activist in Vietnam to have been arrested on the charge of tax evasion. The authorities kept her in a filthy prison cell of twenty-five people.

At the end of last month, Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to “immediately drop all charges against the prominent environmental activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong and unconditionally release her.”

“The Vietnamese authorities are using the vaguely worded tax code as a weapon to punish environmental leaders whom the ruling Communist Party deems a threat to their power,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop punishing activists for peacefully advocating action on climate change and for green policies and drop the case against Hoang Thi Minh Hong.”

However, Human Rights Watch calls were ignored, and Hoang Thi Minh Hong was jailed.

In response, Ben Swanton, co-director of the 88 Project, a Vietnamese human rights group, said: “This conviction is a total sham, nobody should be fooled by it. The trial bore all the hallmarks of a show trial. The hearing lasted less than three hours, indicating that the outcome had been rigged in advance.”

“Hong’s conviction is yet another example of the Vietnamese government weaponizing the law to punish the country’s climate activists for daring to challenge the communist party’s monopoly on policymaking,” added Swanton.

Amnesty International has also condemned the decision. “This verdict is a self-inflicted wound on Viet Nam’s ability to tackle one of the most seismic issues of our time,” Ming Yu, Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigning, said in a statement, urging the international community to condemn the decision and for Vietnam to drop all criminal charges against environmental activists.

“Authorities in Viet Nam must also wake up to the fact that they can only fulfill their climate goals and responsibilities by working with, rather than against, those most dedicated to the cause in their own country,” Ming added.

So, too have others. Last week, the U.S. Department of State said it was “deeply concerned” by Hong’s conviction and sentencing and called on Vietnam to “release all those unjustly detained.”

Also this week, the British Government said that the “UK is deeply concerned by the conviction and sentencing of Hoang Thi Minh Hong, former leader of environmental campaign group CHANGE. There is a pattern of environmental experts being arrested and imprisoned in Vietnam.”

The UK Government added that “The Government of Vietnam committed to consult NGOs, media and other stakeholders as part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership. The UK urges the Vietnamese authorities to ensure civil society organisations can operate and participate without fear of unfair treatment, targeting or prosecution.”

A spokesperson for the UK Government reiterated “our call on Vietnam to respect all human rights, including freedom of expression and association, in accordance with Vietnam’s constitution and international commitments.”

It is now urgently imperative that all the partners of the Just Energy Transition Partnership pressure Vietnam to release both Hoang Thi Minh Hong and Ngo Thi To Nhien and all the other environmental activists currently in jail. Otherwise, Vietnam will continue its brutal clampdown.

Ole Bruun, a Professor at Roskilde University in Denmark who has researched environmental activism in Vietnam, told Time Magazine recently, “When someone transcends the fine line between activism and NGO work and at the same time criticize[s] government, the authorities will crack down.”

As Human Rights Watch has documented, over the past two years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its crackdown against mainstream civil society activists. Police arrested the prominent environmental campaigners Dang Dinh Bach, Mai Phan Loi, and Bach Hung Duong in 2021 and Nguy Thi Khanh and Hoang Ngoc Giao in 2022, all on tax evasion charges under Article 200 of the criminal code.

Meanwhile, another environmental activist, Dang Dinh Bach, whom I have written about before and who went on a hunger strike earlier in the year, was also threatened in prison with a knife last month. “My husband’s life is at risk in prison. He has faced a retaliatory punishment for speaking out strongly for the rights of fellow political prisoners,” said his wife, Tran Phuong Thao.

Susanne Wong from OCI said: “We are deeply concerned about the human rights abuses and civil society crackdown in Vietnam. A just energy transition is impossible right now in Vietnam with civil society leaders locked away. We urge governments supporting the Just Energy Transition Partnership to halt all financing until the rights and participation of civil society are secured. Vietnam, the world is watching. You cannot be a climate leader and lock up your critics. It is that simple.”

Meanwhile, OCI and other civil society groups are also highlighting how the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), which has committed to stop funding fossil fuel projects by the end of this year, is currently considering investment into a gas development project in Vietnam.

It is understood that the JBIC is considering financing the construction of the pipelines from gas fields being run by Mitsui Oil Exploration Co.

The civil society groups point out that the project is problematic from a human rights perspective due to Vietnam’s crackdown on environmental activists and experts. The crackdown means it would be difficult for the JBIC to “involve stakeholders, including local residents and NGOs, who will be affected by the project,” as stated in the JBIC Guidelines for Confirmation of Environmental and Social Considerations.

The groups are now strongly urging the JBIC “to withhold from financing this project in order to respond to the climate crisis and to avoid becoming indirectly complicit in human rights violations.”