This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A Vietnamese court sentenced climate activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong to three years in prison for tax evasion on Thursday, a state newswire reported Thursday.
The court also fined her the equivalent of US$,4,000 and told her to pay back more than $274,000 in taxes.
The charge carries a maximum seven years jail term plus a fine.
“This conviction is a total sham, nobody should be fooled by it,” said Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project.
“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.
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 last year following the arrest of several environmental activists.
The court was told that CHANGE generated more than US$2.8 million in revenue between 2012 and 2022, the Thanh Nien online news site reported.
The indictment stated that Hong told her employees not to issue invoices in order to evade tax to the tune of $274,000.
Hong admitted the crime, the newswire said, adding that she tried to get her family to recover some of the money in order to receive leniency from the court.
She is the fifth activist in Vietnam to have been arrested on the charge of tax evasion, prompting criticism from international organizations and foreign governments.
“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.”
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, funded by the U.S., Canada, Japan, U.K, E.U. and some European countries.
“Having imprisoned the country’s human rights defenders and democracy activists, the Vietnamese government is now targeting those working for a cleaner, more sustainable environment,” Robertson said. “International donors need to be clear with Vietnam’s leaders that the Just Energy Transition Partnership cannot move forward so long as environmental activists are under attack.”
On Wednesday, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was concerned about the arrest of green energy expert Ngo Thi To Nhien.
The executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition 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.
Nhien had worked with the U.N. Development Programme, the World Bank and USAID.
In a statement seen by Reuters, the U.N. rights office said it was aware of Nhien’s arrest and was “following the developments with concern.”
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of State said it was “deeply concerned” by Hong’s conviction and sentencing in a statement by spokesperson Matthew Miller. It called on Vietnam to “release all those unjustly detained” and to ensure its tax law is “enforced in a transparent, impartial manner that ensures nongovernmental organizations can operate without fear of undue targeting or prosecution.”