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Vietnam detains researcher in latest environmental activist arrest

Handcuffs. (Andrei Calangiu/Dreamstime/TNS)
October 07, 2023

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

The executive director of an energy policy think tank has been detained and could face charges of “appropriating documents of agencies and organizations,” a Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security spokesman told reporters.

Green energy expert Ngo Thi To Nhien would be the sixth environmental activist to face charges in Vietnam in the last two years. The other five – including climate activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong, who was sentenced to three years in prison last week – were charged with tax evasion.

Nhien was detained on Sept. 15 by the Hanoi police. Her arrest came just days after a visit to Hanoi by U.S. President Joe Biden, who raised human rights and environmental concerns with Vietnam’s top leaders.

The ministry’s spokesman, Lt. Gen. To An Xo, confirmed Nhien’s arrest at a news conference on Saturday, adding that two Electricity of Vietnam, or EVN, officials had also been arrested in the case.

Nhien has worked as a researcher for the World Bank and USAID and is the executive director for the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, an independent think tank that is studying the planned transition of the national energy system away from the use of fossil fuels.

The two officials, Duong Duc Viet and Le Quoc Anh, had access to EVN’s documents related to the development of the new national power grid and were also under contract as part-time consultants with Nhien’s organization, according to To An Xo.

The documents that the two officials provided to Nhien were for internal use only, To An Xo said. Nhien could be charged under Article 342 of Vietnam’s Penal Code and could face up to five years in prison, he said.

The Vietnamese government has been jailing environmental activists even after accepting US$15.5 billion to help it cut carbon emissions through the Just Energy Transition Partnership.

‘Research on energy policy is now off limits’

According to the Associated Press, Nhien has been working with the U.N. Development Program to help implement the partnership, which is being funded by the United States, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, the European Union and some European countries.

Nhien “has more than 20 years working experience, and her professional activities focus on energy and environmental economics, energy modeling, energy policy, and assessment of low carbon energy technologies,” according to human rights group The 88 Project.  

“Nhien’s detention is significant as it signals that research on energy policy is now off limits,” Project 88’s co-director Ben Swanton told the AP.

To An Xo told reporters on Saturday that many overseas media outlets and organizations have cited Nhien’s arrest as the latest piece of evidence that Vietnam is cracking down on environmental activists. That conclusion is a distortion and an interference in Vietnam’s domestic affairs, he said.

Hong, 51, was the founder and executive director of CHANGE VN – a non-profit organization which aimed to raise environmental awareness in order to protect nature, combat climate change and promote sustainable development.

She shut down the organization in October 2022 following the arrest of several environmental activists.

“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,” Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said last week

“The government should stop punishing activists for peacefully advocating action on climate change and for green policies,” he said.