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US lawmakers call for release of Vietnamese democracy activist ahead of rights talks

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on July 25, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Douglas Christian/Zuma Press/TNS)
October 09, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Ahead of this week’s U.S.-Vietnamese human rights talks, three U.S. lawmakers called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to raise with Hanoi the case of an imprisoned democracy activist jailed for more than a decade.

In a letter addressed to Pompeo, Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Harley Rouda and Alan Lowenthal said that Nguyen Bac Truyen’s continued detention was a clear example of Vietnam abusing the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

Nguyen Bac Truyen, a former political prisoner and member of the online Brotherhood for Democracy group, was arrested July 30, 2017 by authorities in central Quang Binh province in a way that his relatives described as a “kidnapping.”

While in pretrial detention, authorities denied him access to legal representation, visits from his family and deliveries of food and medicine. In April 2018, Nguyen was sentenced to 11 years “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the government” after a one-day trial alongside five other defendants.

In Friday’s letter, the three California lawmakers said that Nguyen’s release “would represent a key benchmark for human rights improvement in Vietnam and would make clear the Vietnamese government’s commitment to improving conditions for personal freedoms within their borders.”

“The rapidly approaching 24th Annual United States and Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue presents an opportunity to push for meaningful improvements in the situation for human rights within Vietnam. We urge you to raise the case of Nguyen Bac Truyen during this event and push for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience,” the three representatives said.

The Brotherhood for Democracy, founded in 2013 by formerly jailed activists and human rights defenders, had run training seminars on human rights issues and legal assistance to victims of rights infringement by Vietnamese authorities.

Brotherhood members have run afoul of the crackdown beginning in 2017 that saw Vietnam increasingly round up independent journalists, bloggers, and other dissident voices. Already intolerant of dissent, authorities are stepping up efforts to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in January.

In northern Nghe An province, authorities announced the indictment of another Brotherhood for Democracy member and award-winning prisoner of conscience, Tran Duc Thach, for “activities aimed at overthrowing the regime.”

Tran was arrested April 23 for his writings that expose the corruption, injustice and human rights abuses of the Vietnamese government and likely for his connection with the Brotherhood for Democracy.

On Sept. 28 he was awarded the 2020 Nguyen Chi Thien human rights award, named after the late Vietnamese-American dissident poet who spent 27 years in prison during and after the Vietnam War.

Under Article 109 of Vietnam’s penal code, Tran could be sentenced up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

At the time of his arrest, Tran’s wife Nguyen Thi Chuong told RFA that three men asked to step inside her home, then about 20 people forced their way in and read the arrest warrant to her husband.

According to Nguyen Thi Chuong, Tran is currently being held at the Nghi Kim detention camp in Nghe An.

Born in Nghe An in 1952, Tran has been actively advocating for human rights in democracy for many years. He served in the North Vietnamese 4th Army’s 341st Division during the Vietnam War.

He wrote “Obsessive Grave,” a book that tells the story of how North Vietnamese soldiers killed hundreds of innocents at Tan Lap commune in Dong Nai province’s Xuan Loc district during the final campaign of the war that ended with Ho Chi Minh’s victory on April 30, 1975.

In October 2009, he was sentenced to three years in jail for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” along with Vu Van Hung and Pham Van Troi by Ha Noi People’s court.

The Brotherhood for Democracy is not recognized by the Vietnamese government and many of its members have been imprisoned since its founding in 2013.

Estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience now held in Vietnam’s jails vary widely. New York-based Human Rights Watch said that authorities held 138 political prisoners as of October 2019, while Defend the Defenders has suggested that at least 240 are in detention, with 36 convicted last year alone.