Reporters Without Borders organized a meeting today with journalists at its Paris headquarters about the case of Pham Minh Hoang, a blogger and university lecturer with dual French and Vietnamese citizenship who has been detained in Vietnam for the past four months.
His brother, Duy Khanh Pham, and members of the outlawed opposition Viet Tan party, including its European representative, Binh Nguyen, were among the participants who discussed the latest news about Hoang and the role that France could play in seeking his release.
Arrested on 13 August in Ho Chi Minh City, where he was teaching at the Institute of Technology, Hoang has just completed his fourth month in detention. The authorities told his family this morning that he is to be held for another four months for further investigation. Under Vietnamese law, a political prisoner can be held without trial and without seeing a lawyer for an initial four-month period that that can be renewed up to three times.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard pointed out that “the political context in Vietnam is particularly tense in the run-up to the Communist Party congress scheduled for the start of 2011.” The press freedom organization is concerned that dissidents could pay dearly for the tension within the party.
Julliard urged the French and international media to cover Hoang’s plight and to take advantage of the opportunity the congress is offering “to turn the spotlight on Vietnam and draw attention to the situation of freedom of expression and human rights in this country, which is now the world’s second biggest prisoner for netizens, after China.”
Reporters Without Borders calls on the French government to do more to seek Hoang’s release as soon as possible. Vietnamese human rights activists who have dual nationality are usually released or deported, or both, within a few weeks but this has not been the case with Hoang. The Australian foreign ministry managed to get Vo Hong, a human rights activist and Viet Tan member with dual Australian and Vietnamese citizenship released within 10 days of her arrest after participating in a protest against China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
In a reply to a Reporters Without Borders letter last September, then French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said the right to consular visits had been exercised. The family is regularly told that “negotiations are continuing” without any detail being given or any improvement being noted. Reporters Without Borders fears that France may have decided to do the minimum in order not to jeopardize its relations with Vietnam.
Binh Nguyen, the Viet Tan representative, said the major campaigns waged in support of French citizens held hostage abroad contrasted strangely with the silence about Hoang, 55, who lived for 20 years in France and went to university there before returning to Vietnam to promote science education.
Hoang was formally charged on 20 September, five weeks after his arrest, with “activities aimed at overthrowing the government” (article 79 of the criminal code) and membership of a “terrorist organization” (the banned Viet Tan party). The maximum sentence for violating article 79 is the death penalty. Vietnam has not executed any political dissident since the mid-1980s, but prison sentences have been getting longer. A netizen was recently given a 16-year jail sentence on similar charges (http://fr.rsf.org/viet-nam-detention-illegale-et-nouvelles-21-10-2010,38632.html).
When announcing the charges, the police cited 30 articles which Hoang had posted on his blog (www.pkquoc.multiply.com) under the pseudonym of Phan Kien Quoc. They also accused him of organizing 40 students into a group for training as future Viet Tan members.
But his wife, Le Thi Kieu Oanh, insists that the sole reason for his arrest was his opposition to bauxite mining by a Chinese company in the central highlands. The subject is highly sensitive in Vietnam and the authorities often arrest journalists and bloggers who try to cover it (http://en.rsf.org/vietnam-french-vietnamese-blogger-charged-30-09-2010,38469.html).
Speaking at today’s meeting, Hoang’s brother, Duy-Khanh Pham, praised his sister-in-law for her courage, saying she “represents the dignity that has been stripped from her husband.” She has been allowed only two brief visits under police supervision since his arrest, Pham reported.
“He has lost of lot of weight, and his physical health and psychological state have deteriorated a great deal,” he said. “He is no longer the same man. His way of thinking has changed (as a result of) his physical isolation and his isolation from the media.”
Pham said he was worried that, if the authorities detained him for a year, they might be able to extract a confession from him or obtain his consent to release under unacceptable conditions. The Viet Tan party says it is concerned about the possibility of “a conviction on false grounds and an exemplary sentence to inspire fear.”
Pham said four scenarios were possible in the coming months: “His release without charge, renewal of the detention order, deportation or a summons for a court trial, which could happen at any moment.” He pointed out that, although the family has a lawyer, Hoang does not have one, and the family’s lawyer cannot have visit Hoang or have access to the case file until the investigation is officially over.
Pham said: “The family clearly wants him to be released unconditionally. If he prefers to remain in Vietnam, of his own free will, after his release, the family will respect his choice, as long as it is really possible for him to have reasonable existence, a normal life and human dignity. If these conditions are not respected, we would prefer him to be deported. The conditions of his release are as important as the release itself.”
At the end of the meeting, Pham stressed the importance of an international campaign and media coverage to ensure that his brother and all the other detained human rights activists are not forgotten. Nguyen said the Viet Tan party had launched an international campaign and had gathered 17,000 signatures to a petition for the release of Hoang and other Viet Tan members (http://www.viettan.org/spip.php?article10268).
Reporters Without Borders intends to keep raising Hoang’s case with its contacts at the French foreign ministry and has requested an interview with the new foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie. It wrote to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton ahead of her visit to Hanoi on 30 November, asking her to press for the release of the journalists and bloggers detained in Vietnam (http://en.rsf.org/vietnam-ahead-of-hanoi-visit-hillary-29-10-2010,38684.html).
Reporters Without Borders also wrote to the World Bank calling for the issue of human rights and political prisoners to be taking into account at a donors meeting held in Hanoi on 7 and 8 December. In its reply, the World Bank said it regarded both free speech and the pursuit of a constructive dialogue with Vietnam as important.