International groups call for release of Vietnamese anti-coal campaigner

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A group of international environmental groups is calling on the Group of Seven to put pressure on Vietnam to release prisoner of conscience Dang Dinh Bach.

The joint statement was issued on Jan. 24, marking one year since Bach was sentenced to five years in prison on a charge of “tax evasion.”

The lawyer had been campaigning to reduce Vietnam’s reliance on coal.

The statement’s signatories, including Global Witness and Friends of the Earth U.S., said the world’s leading industrialized nations can’t help Vietnam adopt cleaner energy sources while turning a blind eye to the jailing of green activists.

“The groups are demanding that G7 nations providing multi-billion-dollar funding for Vietnam’s just energy transition support this call since it will be impossible to successfully implement the transition while environmental and climate leaders such as Bach are in jail,” the statement said.

Vietnam is a developing country, with an export-oriented economy dependent on fossil fuels.

By the end of 2021, the installed capacity of coal-fired power plants was about 24.7 gigawatts, accounting for almost one-third of total power capacity. Power output from coal-fired power plants made up nearly half of the country’s total power production that year.

In December last year, the UK, E.U., U.S., Canada, Japan, Norway and Denmark agreed on a partnership program on equitable energy transition with Vietnam, with the aim of helping Hanoi meet its commitment to reduce net emissions to zero by 2050.

Bach, 44, is the director of the Center for Legal Studies & Policy for Sustainable Development. On top of the five-year prison sentence, the court ordered him to pay a fine of nearly VND1.4 billion (U.S.$60,000) related to international grants received for projects at the center even though non-governmental organizations are exempt from paying corporate taxes in Vietnam.

“Bach was not granted a fair trial. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer until seven months after he was arrested and his sentence was much harsher than is usual for people accused of tax evasion,” the statement said.

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Nguy Thi Khanh delivers a speech at the Goldman award ceremony in 2018. Credit: GreenID and Vietnam Pictorial

Bach is one of four environmental activists jailed by the Vietnamese government over the past two years, along with Nguy Thi Khanh, Mai Phan Loi and Bach Hung Duong.

Nguy Thi Khanh worked with local authorities to try to cut their reliance on coal and campaigned to raise awareness of Vietnam’s high pollution levels.

She was sentenced to two years in prison for failing to pay 10% tax on the U.S.$200,000 prize money she won for the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.

“Stuck in a Stalinist yesteryear”

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said the Vietnamese government does not understand that the work of civil society groups is critically important if countries want to persuade people to tackle climate change.

He said leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam are stuck in a “Stalinist yesteryear” where they think their orders are enough to address any challenge.

“Dang Dinh Bach and his colleagues were advising and helping the government create a just transition, but their good faith efforts were betrayed by paranoid and totalitarian leaders that see enemies everywhere,” he said.

Robertson called for the immediate and unconditional release of Bach and other environmentalists and said international donors should put pressure on Vietnam to free them.

“I want my husband home”

Bach’s wife Tran Thi Thao told RFA her husband is being held under close supervision in a prison in Nghe An province south of Hanoi, where she visited him on Jan. 15.

“We talked under close supervision with two police officers sitting close … and taking notes of our conversation,” she said.

“When I asked him how many people he shares a cell with and if his cellmates were getting along with him, the supervisor immediately stopped me, telling me not to ask anything related to that.”

Thao said Bach is still contesting the U.S.$60,000 fine imposed by the court and the family does not intend to pay it in spite of threats from the Criminal Judgment Enforcement Department.

In a Jan.22 post on the fairplanet.org website, titled "This Lunar New Year, I want my husband home," Thao called on the government to show compassion and recognize Bach’s support for Vietnam’s efforts to transition to clean energy.

RFA phoned Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to request comment on Bach’s case but the calls went unanswered.

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn.