Vietnamese environmental activists face repression

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Hoang Thi Minh Hong had been worried for months that she might become the next environmental activist caught up in Vietnam’s repression, so she closed her NGO and kept a low profile. Ta.

But that wasn’t enough, and last month she became the fifth environmental activist to be jailed for tax evasion, in what activists see as a campaign to silence them.

Her conviction comes as donor groups including the United States and the European Union pledge to mobilize $15.5 billion in funding as part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) to help Vietnam switch more quickly to clean energy. It was handed down less than a year later.

The agreement was welcomed by US President Joe Biden as part of Vietnam’s “ambitious clean energy future”.

Her husband, Hoang Binh Nam, 54, told AFP: “Mr. Hong is innocent and does not deserve to spend a day in prison.”

“She has worked for the environment, for wildlife, for a better place, and now she is being severely punished for her actions.”

Just a week before Hong’s conviction, Ngo Thi To Nien, the head of an independent energy policy think tank working on the implementation of the JETP and Vietnam’s leading energy expert, was also arrested. She was accused of misappropriating documents from the state-run power company.

The country’s communist government tolerates no opposition to its one-party rule and regularly imprisons critics, but its recent focus on environmental activists appears to carry a special message. says Jonathan London, an expert on modern Vietnam.

“I think what we are seeing is a concerted effort to declare that all matters of public concern should be dealt with solely by the party and its state,” he told AFP.

Environmental activities could pose a unique threat in Vietnam, he added, as they target powerful economic interests that are “always closely connected to state power.”

– “Please shut your mouth” –

The arrests began with the detention of Dang Dinh Bach, a legal consultant and NGO worker who worked on the coal issue in 2021. He was sentenced to five years in prison because his wife, Tran Huong Thao, claimed that the evidence was fabricated.

“He sought justice and was on the side of the weak,” the 29-year-old told AFP. “But his research touched the interests of companies and authorities, and they wanted to silence him.”

In January 2022, authorities detained Nguy Thi Khanh, founder of Green ID, one of Vietnam’s most prominent environmental organizations.

She was an early and rare voice challenging Hanoi’s plans to increase coal-fired power generation to boost economic development. She was jailed later that year.

The 88 Project, which defends freedom of expression in Vietnam, is investigating the criminal proceedings and penalties imposed on Bach and Khan, as well as two other imprisoned environmentalists, Mai Phan Loi and Bac Hung Duong. It found that there were “serious irregularities” in the method. .

The group said Bach received the most severe sentence of any person convicted of tax evasion, but the amount was much lower than other similar sentences.

Pham Thu Hanh, spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, strongly rejected claims of a “politically motivated” crackdown on environmental activists, saying each individual had violated domestic law.

Mr Khan and Mr Roy were both released from prison this year.

But Bach remains in prison, facing threats and assault and refusing to repay the $55,000 he allegedly owes, his wife Tao said.

Authorities reportedly threatened to confiscate the apartment she lived in with her 2-year-old son.

– JETP is “not punitive” –

The US government said it was “deeply concerned” by Hong’s conviction and urged Vietnam to “make sure its actions are consistent with international commitments, including consulting with non-governmental stakeholders as part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership.” “Please confirm that this is the case.”

“We have had numerous conversations every step of the way about respect for human rights and concerns about environmental activists,” a U.S. official told AFP.

Still, there is little indication that the International Partners Group (IPG), a coalition of donors who signed JETP, sees the arrests as jeopardizing the agreement.

A government official from an IPG member state told AFP on condition of anonymity that the arrests “help Vietnam not only achieve its JETP goals, but more broadly Vietnam’s own goal of achieving net zero.” “It’s a big hurdle for ability.”

However, JETP was “not established in a punitive manner.”

Hong’s husband, Nam, said that was little consolation for Vietnam’s environmentalist community, which remains “very concerned.”

An NGO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several accountants in the industry had quit their jobs for fear of being unfairly treated regarding Vietnam’s complex tax laws.

Nam said Hong wrote a letter to the tax office more than a year before her arrest and was told that her NGO, CHANGE, owed nothing.

But now she has to pay back $300,000. This “exceeds her total income received in the past 10 years,” he said.

“That’s not fair.”

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