A Vietnamese climate activist serving a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion will begin a hunger strike on Friday unless he is immediately and unconditionally released, his wife told Radio Free Asia.
Lawyer and environmentalist Dang Dinh Bach, 44, who had campaigned to reduce Vietnam’s reliance on coal, was arrested in June 2021 and then sentenced to five years in jail.
Bach was director of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center, which works with communities affected by development, poor industrial practices and environmental degradation to help them understand and enforce their rights.
Authorities accused him of not paying taxes for sponsorships his organization received from foreign donors. He is one of several Vietnamese activists sentenced for tax evasion—a charge that rights groups say is politically motivated.
In a conversation with RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Thursday, Bach’s wife, Tran Phuong Thao, said he planned to start a hunger strike the next day. She said he had already been skipping meals and had only been eating one meal a day since March 17.
“He wants to send his sincere love to all species and people,” said Thao. “The hunger strike is for the environment, justice, and climate. He wants to take action to awaken everyone’s love to protect Mother Nature and combat climate change.”
Bach also told his wife that the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Vietnamese government should reconsider their stance on environmental activists, as they are not a threat to political security.
“[They should] stop ungrounded arrests and wrongful convictions,” said Thao. “Also, [Vietnam] must implement its commitments against climate change in a responsible and substantive manner.”
Thao said that it would be her husband’s fourth hunger strike, which could last for many days and be dangerous. Bach asked his family to stop sending food to him in prison except for hydration and electrolyte replenishment packs for emergency use.
Bach said he would regularly send two letters to his family each month, she said, and if no letters arrived, that meant he was in danger in prison.
The news from Bach’s wife comes on the eve of a bilateral human rights dialogue with the European Union.
The regional bloc should add cases like Bach’s to the agenda for discussion, New York-based Human Rights Watch, or HRW, said in a statement Thursday.
“The EU claimed its 2020 Free Trade Agreement would encourage Vietnam to improve its human rights record, but just the opposite has happened,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
“Hanoi’s disregard for rights has already made it clear that the EU needs to consider actions that go beyond simply issuing statements and hoping for the best.”
HRW recalled that the expectation for the establishment of the a EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement Domestic Advisory Group was to promote Vietnamese independent civil society groups’ participation in monitoring the implementation of the EVFTA trade and sustainable development provisions, but cited the tax related arrests of Bach, and another activist Mai Phan Loi, as evidence to the contrary.
HRW also urged the EU to press the Vietnamese government to amend or repeal several vague penal code articles which the authorities frequently use to repress civil and political rights, as well as two constitutional articles which allow for restrictions on human rights for reasons of national security that go beyond what is permissible under international human rights law.
“The EU should get serious about pressing the Vietnamese government to convert rights pledges into genuine reform,” Robertson said. “It’s not much of a rights dialogue if Vietnam officials are just going through the motions, expressing platitudes, and waiting for the meeting to end.”
In May 2023, HRW made a submission to the EU on the human rights situation in Vietnam, and urged the bloc to press the Vietnamese authorities to immediately release all political prisoners and detainees.
Among the hundreds of cases raised in the submission was that of “Onion Bae” Bui Tuan Lam, who is serving a 5½-year sentence on propaganda charges.
Lam, 39, who ran a beef noodle stall in Danang, achieved notoriety in 2021 after posting an online video mimicking the Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, known as “Salt Bae.”
The video was widely seen as a mockery of Vietnam’s minister of public security, To Lam, who was caught on film being hand-fed one of Salt Bae’s gold-encrusted steaks by the chef at his London restaurant at a cost of 1,450 pounds (US$1,790).
In a conversation with RFA about Lam’s recent trial in May, his lengthy sentence, and the upcoming EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue, his wife, Le Thanh Lam said that rights organizations in the EU and UN understand how Vietnamese authorities have done many wrongful things the family.
“My kids lost their right to have a father next to them while their father did not do anything unlawful. Everything my husband did is[allowed] under Vietnam’s Constitution and laws,” she said. “He only exercised freedom of speech and other human rights enshrined in the U.N. documents that Vietnam signed.”
Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.