Vietnamese activist known as ‘Onion Bae’ sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison

UPDATED AT 03:00 a.m. ET on 2023-05-25

A court in the central Vietnamese city of Danang sentenced activist Bui Tuan Lam – known as “Onion Bae” – to five years and six months in prison Thursday, along with four years of probation, one of his lawyers Le Dinh Viet told RFA.

He was convicted of propaganda under Article 117 of the country’s Penal Code, which carries a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 12, after being found guilty of criticizing the government online.

Bui, 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 (U.S.$1,790). 

The minister was in the U.K. as part of a Vietnamese government delegation which attended the COP26 climate change conference in Scotland.

Critics wondered how the official could afford the extravagant meal on a monthly salary of $660.

In Bui’s video clip, he calls himself “Onion Bae” and dramatically sprinkles spring onions into a bowl of soup, mimicking the signature move of the celebrity chef.

Bui was later summoned by Danang police for questioning and arrested and charged in September 2022.

Article 117 of the country’s Penal Code criminalizes “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” It is frequently used by authorities to restrict freedom of expression and opinions deemed critical of the government.

According to Danang People’s Procuracy’s indictment, Bui posted 19 articles on his Facebook account and 25 videos and articles on his YouTube account from April 17, 2020, to July 26, 2022. The articles and videos included content that it claimed were “distorting, defaming people’s government” and “fabricating and causing confusion among people.”

“The Vietnamese authorities deem just about anything as ‘propaganda against the state’ to crack down on activists and dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch ahead of the verdict. 

“The Vietnamese government should abolish rights-abusing article 117 of the penal code and stop prosecuting Bui Tuan Lam and others for criticizing the Vietnamese Communist Party.”

Bui 2.jpeg
Bui Tuan Lam with his handmade human rights products. Credit: Facebook: Le Thanh Lam

Bui is a seasoned activist, spending many years speaking out against China’s territorial claims in parts of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam and also campaigning to protect the environment. He received threats from the Danang police after providing food to local people during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

After his “Onion Bae” video went viral the police ordered him to close his noodle stall, which he did for a short while ahead of his arrest.

“The authorities have hounded him for his posts and videos, showing the length that Vietnamese authorities can go to deny people the enjoyment of their right to freedom of expression, no matter how benign, satirical or light-hearted,” said Amnesty International Interim Deputy Regional Director for Research Montse Ferrer before the verdict was handed down. 

“Satire is not a crime,” she added.

Authorities prevented Bui Tuan Lam’s lawyers from meeting with him ahead of the trial, claiming last month that he refused representation. After his wife Le Than Lam demanded to meet with Bui to find out the truth the People’s Procuracy of Danang issued a notice allowing lawyers to represent him.

The court approved Le Dinh Viet’s registration to be Bui Tuan Lam’s lawyer for the trial. But when Viet went to Danang Police’s detention facility where Bui Tuan Lam was being held, he said staff didn’t allow him to see his client, claiming the judge hadn’t had time to review the investigation report. 

Lawyers Le Dinh Viet and Ngo Anh Tuan were allowed to represent Bui in court on Thursday but the latter was removed from the court after requesting a fair debate between defense lawyers and prosecutors, Le Dinh Viet told RFA.

“Today’s trial I feel is similar to the political cases that I have been involved in. Law enforcement itself was not sufficiently exercised during the hearing of the case,” he said, criticizing the so-called “expert conclusions” given by members of Danang’s Department of Information and Communication during Thursday’s trial.

“Those assessment conclusions have many violations, including violations of expertise authority, violations of the roles of experts, even some which violate the basic principles of the law on judicial expertise.”

“In my opinion, given the circumstances and developments of today’s trial, the issuance of the judgment does not guarantee the objectivity nor guarantee the legal rights of defendant Bui Tuan Lam.”

Bui pleaded “not guilty” plea, saying he exercised the right to freedom of expression. His lawyers said he would appeal the verdict.

Bui’s wife and family were not allowed to attend the trial. Le Dinh Viet said they had been detained by the police.

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn.

Updated with a quote from one of Bui’s lawyers.