International groups call for release of Vietnamese anti-coal campaigner — Radio Free Asia

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 declaration was issued on January 24, which marks one year since Bach was sentenced to five years in prison on a “tax evasion” charge.

The lawyer had campaigned to reduce Vietnam’s dependence on coal.

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

“The groups are demanding that G7 nations, which provide multi-billion-dollar funding for Vietnam’s just energy transition, support this call, as it will be impossible to make the transition successfully while environmental and climate leaders like Bach are in prison,” the declaration states.

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, which is almost a third of the total power capacity. Electricity production from coal-fired power plants accounted for almost half of the country’s total electricity production that year.

Last December, the UK, the EU, the US, Canada, Japan, Norway and Denmark agreed on a Just Energy Transition Partnership Program with Vietnam, aimed at helping Hanoi meet its commitment to reduce net emissions to zero by 2050.

Bach, 44, is director of the Center for Legal Studies & Policy for Sustainable Development. In addition to the five-year prison sentence, the court ordered him to pay a fine of nearly VND 1.4 billion (US$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 did not get a fair trial. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer until seven o’clock months after he was arrested and his sentence was much harsher than is normal for people accused of tax evasion, the statement said.

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Nguy Thi Khanh delivers a speech at the 2018 Goldman Awards. 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 reduce their dependence 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 $200,000 in prize money she won for the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.

“Stuck in a Stalinist yesterday”

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 the leaders of Vietnam’s Communist Party are stuck in a “Stalinist yesteryear” where they believe their orders are enough to solve any challenge.

“Dang Dinh Bach and his colleagues advised and helped the government to create a just transition, but their good faith efforts were betrayed by paranoid and totalitarian leaders who 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 that her husband is being kept under close surveillance in a prison in Nghe An province south of Hanoi, where she visited him on January 15.

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

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

Thao said Bach is still contesting the US$60,000 fine imposed by the court and that the family has no intention of paying it despite threats from the Criminal Law Enforcement Division.

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

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

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn.

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