Authorities in Vietnam on Monday detained prominent activist Hoang Duc Binh for anti-state activities and announced a warrant to arrest fellow rights defender Thai Van Dung for violating probation, amid a crackdown on those protesting the government’s handling of a devastating 2016 toxic waste spill.
The police of central Vietnam’s Nghe An province arrested Binh, 34, for “opposing officers on duty” and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state” under Articles 257 and 258 of Vietnam’s penal code, according to a report by the Nghe An Public Security newspaper.
Binh will be detained for 90 days on the charges, which the report tied to defaming the ruling Communist Party on social media and using the April 2016 waste spill by Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group’s steel plant as an excuse to cause social disorder through protests in Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces.
Emily Page Le, a U.S.-based democracy activist currently visiting Vietnam, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that she had been riding in a car with Binh and Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc Monday after leaving Song Ngoc parish in Nghe An’s Quynh Luu district when plainclothes officers pulled them over in neighboring Dien Chau district and arrested Binh.
“As we left Song Ngoc parish, there were two security guards following us, so Priest Thuc tried to take pictures of them,” Le said of the Catholic priest, who in early May was one of two clergymen denounced by the Vietnamese government for organizing protests against Formosa.
“When we had driven about 40 kilometers (25 miles), a police car stopped us to check our papers. As the driver opened the door to give them the papers, they pulled him out of the car and security personnel dragged Binh out.”
Binh’s father, Hoang Duc Hoa, confirmed that his son had been arrested by plainclothes officers, but said his family has no clue where he is being held.
“We don’t know anything [about his situation] because the authorities haven’t spoken to us,” he told RFA.
“Our family and his friends are looking for him at the moment.”
The Formosa waste spill killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen jobless in four coastal provinces.
Formosa has voluntarily paid U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate coastal residents affected by the spill, but slow and uneven payout of the funds by the Vietnamese government has prompted protests that continue to be held more than a year later.
Hundreds of people gathered in front of the Dien Chau district government office to demand Binh’s release Monday and security personnel were deployed to stop the demonstration.
Also on Monday, the official Nghe An newspaper announced a nationwide hunt for Catholic activist Thai Van Dung, citing an arrest warrant signed by the provincial police on March 8, 2017 for failing to comply with his sentence from an earlier prison term under Article 304 of Vietnam’s penal code.
According to the report, Dung—who has helped to organize anti-Formosa protests—violated his terms of probation and “fled his residence” on March 1.
Dung told RFA on Monday that neither he nor his family had received a warrant for his arrest or any kind of notification from the authorities in the two months since the order was signed.
“Today … the authorities put it on their website without coming to see me directly to present the arrest warrant,” Dung said.
“If the authorities really issued that warrant, then I am willing to let the authorities arrest me because before I was released from prison I declared that I … would continue to fight for justice and peace—for the rights that people deserve to have.”
Dung was arrested on August 19, 2011 and on Jan. 9, 2013 was sentenced to four years in jail and four years of probation for trying to “overthrow the government' under Article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code and for his alleged affiliation with banned opposition party Viet Tan. Sentences in Vietnam typically account for time spent in pre-trial detention.
Upon his release from Thanh Hoa Camp in August 2015, Dung told RFA that prison authorities had offered to reduce his sentence if he signed a confession admitting to the charges against him, but said he had refused.
He said he was forced to routinely fight for his limited rights and conduct hunger strikes to get his way while incarcerated, including one 12-day fast in early 2014 to try to win the right read religious books.
Thai told RFA at the time that he would continue working with civil society organizations and fighting for people’s rights, adding that he knew he could be arrested again and was prepared for that.
Reports of the arrest and warrant came as Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) announced that Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) secretary-general Le Cong Cau is holding a hunger strike in protest of a ban prohibiting him from visiting Thich Quang Do, the church’s critically-ill detained leader.
VCHR said that Do, 89, had called Cau on Sunday, asking him to come urgently to Vietnam’s commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City from his home in Hue city in Thua Thien-Hue province to discuss his health situation and related UBCV affairs.
Cau purchased a plane ticket and was preparing to fly to Ho Chi Minh City Monday, but police—who monitor the telephones of both Do and Cau—intercepted the communication, traveled to his home Sunday evening, and prohibited him from traveling without providing any order or explanation.
Cau has announced that he is holding a hunger strike until May 22 in protest.
VCHR condemned the travel ban on Cau and slammed Vietnam’s government for its “inhumane” treatment of Do, who has been detained “for decades, without any justification or charge.”
“Today, when his health is failing, police prevent him from receiving support from his followers,” the group said in a statement.
VCHR urged the international community to pressure Vietnam to lift all restrictions on Do and guarantee his right to communicate with and receive visits from UBCV members, and to immediately lift the travel ban on Cau and enable him to meet with Do, in accordance with Vietnam’s obligations as a state party to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.