Imprisoning environmental activists, Vietnam contradicts itself about its commitments at COP-26?

Environmental activists Nguy Thi Khanh, Mai Phan Loi, and Dang Dinh Bach (from left to right)

The Vietnamese government made strong commitments and determination to protect the environment at the 26th UN World Climate Conference (COP-26) in Glasgow last year while still arresting prominent environmental activists such as Ms. Nguy Thi Khanh, Mr. Mai Phan Loi. Mr. Dang Dinh Bach. That raises questions about whether Hanoi really wants to fulfill its promise.

During COP 26, held in Glasgow last November, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh strongly committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

With such firm commitments, Hanoi still arrested and sentenced environmental activist Nguy Thi Khanh to two years in prison for tax evasion on June 17.

Don’t give money to the country that imprisons environmental activists

An article published in the Politico newspaper said that US Climate Envoy John Kerry and his European Union counterpart Frans Timmermans on June 26 jointly voiced a request for the release of Nguy Thi Khanh and other environmental activists being held captive in Vietnam.

The article said the arrest risked affecting negotiations with Vietnam, the world’s ninth-largest coal consumer. If officials do not speak out about these sentences, they will face the wrath of civil society organizations in the US and Europe, who do not want funding to flow to countries that have imprisoned environmental activists.

Saskia Bricmont, a Belgian member of the European Parliament interested in the case, was quoted in the article as saying that the tax evasion allegations against the activists were ” just not credible. I mean, it can happen in one case, but this is obviously a lie.”

Activists for the environment and sustainable development have been the target of the Vietnamese Government in recent years. In addition to the arrest of Ms. Nguy Thi Khanh, there were also two Mr. Mai Phan Loi – Chairman of the Scientific Council of the Media and Education Center (MEC), sentenced to four years in prison, and lawyer Dang Dinh Bach – Director of the Center for Legal Studies and Policy for Sustainable Development (LPSD), was sentenced to five years in prison, also on the same charge of tax evasion. All three organizations mentioned above are part of the Alliance for the Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases of Vietnam (NCDs-VN).

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in a regular press conference on June 23, saying that “Nguy Thị Khánh was investigated and prosecuted for economic crimes, specifically violating the provisions of the law on tax administration and admitted this behavior. Some speculations that Nguy Thi Khanh is being criminally handled for her activities and opinions related to climate change are groundless and not true to the nature of the case.”

A person who used to work with the NCDs-VN alliance, who did not want to be named for safety reasons, commented to RFA on the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as follows:

The government made such a strong commitment at COP-26 to get funding from the European Union and developed countries. That money is used 80% for lobbying. The arrests of environmental activists were made so that no one dares to speak out, stand in their way.

With great contributions to non-profit scientific activities, contributing to the development of environmental policies, public health, and sustainable development for the country… the leaders of these organizations should not be identified as dangerous to the society and subjects for imprisonment.”

Criminal handling is unreasonable

An attorney who followed the case, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA that it is not necessary to criminally handle cases that occur at organizations such as Green ID, MEC, and LPSD. And so, it is not reasonable to convict and imprison activists like Ms. Khanh, Mr. Bach, and Mr. Loi.

Judging by the case of LPSD, this organization is said to have left the revenue books of more than VND10 billion ($450,000), and since then accused the organization of evading taxes of more than VND1.3 billion.

According to the lawyer, LPSD’s grants to implement projects serving the community and environmental benefits should not be subject to corporate income tax:

By law, organizations like LPSD have zero tax rates. They are not required to pay taxes, then why they are accused of tax evasion?!

So, if they were caught ‘not keeping the books,’ it is just a flaw in the administrative procedure.”

As for Ms. Nguy Thi Khanh, accused of “tax evasion” related to the $ 200,000 bonus she received from the Goldman Prize, the unnamed lawyer said:

The prize that Ms. Khanh received is $200,000, if you calculate the tax payable, it is only about VND500 million! That would be fixable under normal circumstances, but here they apply criminal liability. So it’s absurd.”

Article 200 of the 2015 Penal Code on tax evasion stipulates that those who commit acts of tax evasion with an amount of between VND300 million and VND1 billion shall be subject to a fine of between VND500 million and VND1 billion, or a prison term of one year to five to three years.

Vietnam’s civil society is almost “paralyzed” after the arrests

The article on Politico said that Timmermans and Alok Sharma, the UK’s top climate envoy and COP-26 President, visited Vietnam in February to negotiate a coal phase-out agreement.

The officials said they did not raise the issue of the arrests with Hanoi’s leaders, following the wishes of the activists’ relatives. Khanh’s family and lawyer want to limit the publicity of information so that the Hanoi government can give a light trial to this person considered an environmental hero:

After arresting key people and leaders to speak out the most, the Government continued to tighten and narrow the operating space of civil society organizations.

The Vietnamese Union of Scientific and Technology Association (VUSTA) does not recognize alliances, such as the Vietnam Alliance for Non-Communicable Diseases Prevention, the VSEA Sustainable Energy Alliance, the JEH Alliance for Action for Justice-Health-Environment…

The members of these organizations are subject to a lot of pressure and consequences, being monitored by security, causing difficulties…

For a year now, they have not been licensed to implement new projects, the centers have no capital to continue, and many colleagues reportedly have not received a salary.”

An anonymous member who worked with NCDs-VN said that, even after the arrest of the leaders of the three organizations mentioned above, the registered non-profit non-government organizations in the country were almost paralyzed. There are a number of organizations that have to suspend operations or self-dissolve. (Translated)

Kasse animation 7.8.2023