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VIETNAM: ARBITRARY DETENTION OF ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST ĐANG ĐINH BACH

The International League Against Arbitrary Detention urges the Government of Vietnam to take all the necessary actions to implement the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Opinion No. 22/2023 concerning Đặng Đình Bách starting for the Government of Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release Đặng Đình Bách and to accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations in accordance with international law.


Read the full WGAD Opinion concerning Đặng Đình Bách (Vietnam): Opinion No. 22/2023

 

ARRESTED FOR EXERCISING HIS FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND SENTENCED TO 5 YEARS IN PRISON


Đặng Đình Bách is a citizen of Vietnam, born in September 1978 and residing in Hanoi. He led a non-profit organization called the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Centre from 2011 to 2021, which focused on legal advocacy in environmental, land use, and industrial pollution cases, as well as facilitating civil society participation and monitoring sustainable development policies in Vietnam. Mr. Bách is known for inspiring young volunteers for charitable projects, particularly in helping victims of environmental disasters. While not known for political activism, some of his work on politically sensitive cases, especially those involving environmental organizations funded by the US State Department and the European Union, might have made him a target. Specifically, his documentation of complaints regarding the Son La hydroelectric plant, which displaced many ethnic minority groups, could have been perceived as hostile to the state, despite his claims of collaboration with the government on environmental policies.


Đặng Đình Bách, was arrested on June 24, 2021, without a warrant, and charged with tax evasion allegedly related to improper handling of foreign funding for his non-profit organization. During his pretrial detention until his trial on January 24, 2022, he was mostly held incommunicado, despite pleas from his lawyer and family. His trial process was marred by violations, including lack of evidence sharing with his lawyer, a closed trial, refusal of his defense, and a presumption of guilt. Despite maintaining his innocence, he was sentenced to five years in prison. During his appeal hearing on August 11, 2022, his family and embassy representatives were denied entry, despite claims of space limitations, and his appeal was ultimately denied, with his hunger strike in protest continuing.


Mr. Bách's arrest lacked a legal foundation, as he was detained for nine days without being informed of charges, violating Article 9(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Additionally, his arrest and detention occurred without judicial authorization, breaching Article 9(1) of the Covenant. The laws used in his prosecution were found too broad and vague, thus violating the principle of legality. Moreover, Mr. Bách's prolonged incommunicado detention prevented him from promptly challenging the legality of his confinement, contravening Article 9(3) of the Covenant. His right to family visits and contact with the outside world was systematically denied, in violation of established international standards. The Working Group concluded that these breaches highlight the arbitrary nature of his deprivation of liberty under category I and warrant urgent redress.

 

PERSECUTED AND DISCRIMINATED FOR HIS ACTIVITIES AS AN ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST


Mr. Đặng Đình Bách's arrest is part of a broader pattern where civil society members in Vietnam are targeted under tax laws, seemingly to suppress dissent against the government. His involvement in establishing a domestic advisory group to monitor the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement appears to have triggered his arrest, as it posed a potential threat to government interests. The European Union canceled a joint forum in response, and the fate of the agreement is uncertain. Additionally, at least three other environmental leaders faced similar arrests and heavy sentences, with investigations led by state security authorities and charges seemingly unrelated to normal tax evasion cases. This situation highlights the discrepancy between Vietnam's tax laws and its human rights obligations, as noted by the Human Rights Committee and other international bodies.


The suppression of Mr. Bách's freedom of expression is a primary motive behind his detention. His advocacy for environmental causes and monitoring of governmental compliance were met with overly broad restrictions on speech and information dissemination. The Working Group found the prosecutorial actions against him were disproportionate and failed to uphold the necessity principle, depriving him of his fundamental freedoms and violating international law. The Working Group therefore concluded Mr. Bách's detention violated his rights protected by the Covenant, particularly Articles 19, 21, and 22. The decrees under which Mr. Bách was charged hindered the operation of non-governmental entities, impeding their statutory activities and violating the Covenant.


Mr. Bách's deprivation of liberty is deemed arbitrary by the Working Group due to discriminatory treatment based on his activities related to environmental activism and monitoring the state's compliance with environmental regulations. The Working Group stated that this discrimination violates his right to equality before the law. Specifically, Mr. Bách appears to have been targeted because of his advocacy for environmental rights, even though he does not identify himself as a human rights defender. The differential treatment he received compared to other environmental advocates, such as denial of family visits and receiving a heavier sentence for maintaining his innocence, demonstrates the government's discriminatory attitude towards his case. The Working Group considered this differential treatment to be a violation of international law on the grounds of discrimination based on political or other opinion, as outlined in articles 2 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 2 (1) and 26 of the Covenant. Therefore, the Working Group concluded that Mr. Bách's deprivation of liberty is arbitrary under category V.

 

BLATANT VIOLATIONS OF HIS RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL


The Working Group noted the detention's arbitrary nature stemmed from the lack of clarity in the laws (Decrees No. 93 and No. 80), which failed to meet the principles of legality and precision required for individuals to understand and regulate their conduct accordingly. The Working Group considered that Mr. Bách's deprivation of liberty presents numerous violations of his right to a fair and impartial trial as per the Covenant under category III. The Working Group considered that these violations encompass his entitlement to challenge his arrest, as outlined in Article 9 of the Covenant and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).


Also, the Working Group recalled the right to prepare a defense, guaranteed by Article 14 (1) and (3) (b) of the Covenant and Article 10 of the UDHR, which was compromised by prolonged incommunicado detention before trial, hindering adequate defense preparation. Additionally, the Working Group also recalled Mr. Bách's right to consult counsel, as per Article 14(3)(b) and (d) of the Covenant and Articles 10 and 11 of the UDHR, which was impeded by limited access to legal assistance and lack of confidential communication with his lawyer.


Furthermore, the Working Group noted that the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of fair trial rights under Article 14(2) of the Covenant and Article 11 of the UDHR, was undermined by pretrial detention without prompt judicial review. They also highlighted the tribunal's competence, mandated by Article 14(1) of the Covenant, being compromised due to the lack of judicial independence, as nearly all judges were affiliated with the Communist Party of Viet Nam.


Last but not least, the Working Group recalled the right to a public trial, as articulated in Article 14(1) of the Covenant and Article 10 of the UDHR, and noted that it was denied as Mr. Bách's trial and appeal hearings were closed to the public, and found that the failure to review Mr. Bách's conviction and sentence, contrary to Article 14(5) of the Covenant, further exacerbated the arbitrary nature of his deprivation of liberty under category III.


CONCLUSIONS OF THE UN WORKING GROUP AGAINST ARBITRARY DETENTION


In light of the foregoing, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considered that the detention of Đặng Đình Bách was arbitrary and fell under categories I,II,III, and V because the deprivation of liberty of was in contravention of articles 2, 7, 9, 10 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 2, 9, 14, 19, 21, 22 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recommended that the Government of Vietnam take the steps necessary to remedy the situation of Mr. Đặng Đình Bách's without delay and bring it into conformity with the relevant international norms, starting with his immediate release and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations.

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