Vietnam: Drop Charge Against Student Activist

(New York) – Vietnam should drop all charges and immediately release student blogger Phan Kim Khanh, Human Rights Watch said today. Vietnam’s donors and regional leaders should make it clear that they will demand that all political prisoners be released before the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit taking place in Da Nang the week of November 6-11.

Phan Kim Khanh is set to face trial on October 25, 2017, at the People’s Court of Thai Nguyen province. He was arrested in March 2017 for posts critical of the government on the internet and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code, one of the country’s many national security provisions that has been regularly used to arbitrarily punish critics and stifle dissent. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years of imprisonment.

“The bogus crime of conducting propaganda against the state is designed to silence peaceful critics of the Vietnamese authorities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Vietnam ought to get rid of these laws and stop persecuting students and ordinary people for just talking about the country’s problems on the internet.”

Phan Kim Khanh, 24, is a student at the Department of International Relations at Thai Nguyen University. During his freshmen year, he helped found and manage a student club at the university to facilitate volunteer work. Later, he served as a member of the secretariat of the board of the student association. Phan Kim Khanh received many awards from the Thai Nguyen Students Association and the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth League of Thai Nguyen province. He also received a 2015 scholarship to attend a training course provided by the U.S Embassy in Hanoi for members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).

In a published personal statement, he wrote: “I was born in a village in Phu Tho where everybody woke up very early in the morning to work hard to earn their livings. Some would go to the field to cut fresh vegetable and carry them to the market to sell. Others quickly lit their charcoal fire to warm up rice and some left-over food from the night before and promptly left home for their morning shift at the industrial brick kiln. They worked hard and struggled all day, but their lives remained poor… During my sophomore and junior year at the university, I began to examine the problems why Vietnam could not become a developed country… I want to work for genuine media in a near future. I would like to participate in the struggle movement for democracy and freedom of press in Vietnam.”

Police arrested Phan Kim Khanh on March 21, 2017, for founding and managing two blogs in 2015 called “Newspaper of [anti]Corruption” (Bao Tham Nhung) and “Vietnam Weekly” (Tuan Viet Nam). In addition, he allegedly opened three accounts on Facebook and two accounts on YouTube. The authorities accuse him of “continuously publishing information with fabricated and distorted contents that aim to oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; most of these contents were taken from other reactionary websites.”

Phan Kim Khanh’s arrest is part of Vietnam’s ongoing crackdown on bloggers and activists. Within the last 12 months, the police have arrested at least 28 people and charged them with vaguely-interpreted national security violations. The most recent arrest occurred on October 17 when police detained environmental activist Tran Thi Xuan in Ha Tinh and charged her with alleged activities that aim to overthrow the government.

Blogger Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha remain in police custody since December 2015 without trial. The initial charge against them was propaganda against the state. In July 2017, it was changed to subversion.

More than 100 activists are currently serving prison terms for exercising their basic freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion. Vietnam should unconditionally release them and repeal all laws that criminalize peaceful expression.

“The only crime Phan Kim Khanh committed was to express political views disapproved by the authorities,” said Adams. “Students should be encouraged to write about social and political problems—not punished. International donors and trade partners need to step up pressure on the country’s leaders to improve its abysmal rights record, and the APEC Summit is a good moment to start.”