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Jailed Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang wins human rights award, critics slam her conviction

The 2022 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders has been awarded to Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang, who is now serving a nine-year jail sentence for “anti-state” acts. Vietnamese critics slam her conviction as “too heavy” and as the government’s strategic “deterrent.”

Pham Doan Trang, who was awarded alongside Dr. Daouda Diallo of Burkina Faso and Abdul-Hadi Al-Khawaja of Bahrain, was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City in October 2020 and later charged under Article 117 of the Vietnamese penal code for “propaganda against the State.” She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in December last year.

2022 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders awarded to Pham Doan Trang

Pham Doan Trang’s lengthy track record of activism in one-party Vietnam merits the Martin Ennals Award, which “honors individuals and organizations that have shown exceptional commitment to defending and promoting human rights, despite the risks involved.” Trang, the co-founder of the dissident blog Luat Khoa Tap Chi (Journal of Law) and numerous other independent media sources, had been outspoken on a variety of topics pertaining to human rights, democratic rights, and environmental preservation for years previous to her incarceration.

She was notably critical of the official story of the high-profile land dispute in the northern Vietnamese village of Dong Tam, which resulted in the execution of two brothers and the imprisonment of 27 other villagers following a violent battle with police in January 2020.

“In an environment that challenges the very existence of investigative journalism, her unique entrepreneurial initiatives to establish multiple media outlets (such as the Luat Khoa and Liberal Publishing House) were inspirational to many,” the Martin Ennals Award said in a statement unveiling its 2022 laureates.

Jailed Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang wins human rights award, critics slam her conviction
Vietnamese journalist Pham Thi Doan Trang, also known as Pham Doan Trang

Pham Doan Trang’s conviction and punishment closed off a difficult year for critics and reformers in Vietnam, according to Stewart Rees of the 88 Project, a non-profit group that works to promote freedom of speech in Vietnam. Meanwhile, a ccording to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Vietnam had the fourth-highest number of imprisoned journalists in 2021 of any country.

Pham Doan Trang’s health has been a source of worry since her imprisonment. According to Amnesty International, she was detained incommunicado for more than a year following her arrest, during which time she was refused access to her family and legal counsel.

Pham Doan Trang, who had previously been detained for participating in numerous rallies, was unsurprised when the authorities arrested her on October 6, 2020, only hours after the completion of an annual human rights discussion session with the US administration. In a letter she sent in May 2019 requesting her release in the case of her custody, she advised fellow activists to use her confinement to bargain for more freedom in Vietnam, and to “advocate for the others first, then me.”

“I don’t want freedom for myself: that’s too easy,” she wrote. “I want something greater: freedom for Vietnam.”

Critics voiced opposition to 9-year sentence of Pham Doan Trang

The conviction of Vietnamese journalist Pham Thi Doan Trang, also known as Pham Doan Trang, to nine years in prison on December 14 for “spreading anti-state propaganda” has angered both domestic and international observers.

Pham Doan Trang released information claiming human rights breaches and police violence on a daily basis. She was apprehended in October of 2020. In recent years, she has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Vietnam’s human rights record.

The arrest occurred just hours after the conclusion of the 24th annual US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Hanoi.

“The sentence is too heavy,” said media specialist Minh Pham based in Ho Chi Minh City.

“This sort of trial made me more cautious about speaking and expressing my views in the press and on social media in the future. I feel insecure. It is better to avoid talking about political issues because regardless of the degree of difference in opinion, it will be labelled as an ‘anti-national’ act,” he added.

Another critic, Oanh Vu, who works in the food and beverage business, believes Vietnam has a long way to go in terms of free speech.

She said, “Trang’s case has become a sad story as we are heading to the end of this year. But anyway, it is optimistic to see some people are still supporting her and other political prisoners as well. They called for donations to give them [the prisoners] Tet gifts, and provide assistance for their families in their absence. It is also a very practical way to support and help.”

Pham Doan Trang was served 9 years in prison
Pham Doan Trang was served 9 years in prison

A freelance writer who did not want to be identified said that Pham Doan Trang’s harsh sentence might serve as a warning to others, because the government may not be able to arrest all dissidents just because of what they post on social media.

“I think they may use Trang to warn others … with the hope that other journalists or dissidents will see what happened to Trang and decide to step back,” he said.

“But I do think the government will have to change its approach sooner or later. Nowadays, people can express their opinion on various social media platforms, especially apps made by Western tech companies. That means as Vietnam is promoting international integration, they will not be able to prevent people from using social media. In recent years, we have seen Facebook groups spreading propaganda. They attract attention and earn support from the youth as well.”

Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia studies professor at the National War College in Washington, sees a bigger purpose in the handling of Pham Doan Trang’s case as well.

“The government can’t go and arrest every dissenter or person who makes an anti-government post on Facebook,” he said. “The government is really trying to be very strategic in going after the most influential individuals. They try to figure out who is influencing others and hope that that serves as a deterrent.”

The case of Pham Doan Trang prompted numerous countries to express worry about Vietnam’s human rights status, despite the country’s close relations with the United States and the European Union. Vietnam is now attempting to persuade EU countries to adopt an investment protection pact in addition to the already ratified EU free trade deal.

Critics slam the harsh sentence given to Pham Doan Trang
Pham Doan Trang was heavily escorted by Vietnamese police

Pham Doan Trang’s release, however, was demanded in a Dec. 16 statement by an EU official.

The actions taken against Pham Doan Trang “on the basis of her extensive and peaceful journalistic work defending civil and political rights are in violation of Vietnam’s international human rights obligations, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party since 1982,” according to the statement.

The EU further urged Vietnamese authorities to free all arbitrarily jailed human rights advocates and to ensure everyone’s right to a fair trial.

“The European Union will continue to monitor the human rights situation in Vietnam, and work with the authorities towards the improvement of the human rights situation in the country,” said the statement.

Trang’s punishment occurred just a few days after U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the widely publicized Summit for Democracy, which aimed to counter what Pham Doan Trang and many others saw as a deterioration of democratic norms in many countries.

“While the Biden Administration has said that democracy promotion is a high foreign policy priority, I’ve not seen it manifest in Southeast Asia, where getting states to balance against China is a higher priority. Security always trumps values,” Abuza said.

Abuza also cautioned that such hefty sentences for public speech would harm Vietnam’s international position, pointing out that there are genuine limitations to how far Western democratic nations can go in ignoring a full-frontal attack on dissent.

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