Defend the Defenders’ Latest Statistics: Vietnam Holds 239 Prisoners of Conscience



Defend the Defenders

January 1, 2020


According to Defend the Defenders’ statistics, as of December 31, 2019, Vietnam’s communist regime is holding at least 238 prisoners of conscience in prisons or similar forms of detention, and female activist Huynh Thuc Vy under house arrest. Vietnam still remains the second largest jailer of dissidents in Southeast Asia, only behind Myanmar. 

The above number includes 230 who have been convicted – mostly of political crimes such as subversion, “propaganda against the state,” “abusing democratic freedom,” “disruption of security,” and “undermining the national unity” –  and 19 others held in pre-trial detention. The list does not count Vietnamese American Michael Minh Phuong Nguyen and Vietnamese Australian Chau Van Kham, who are accused of conducting “attempts to overthrow the government” under Article 109 of the country’s 2015 Criminal Code. Bloggers, lawyers, unionists, land rights activists, political dissidents, and followers of non-registered minority religions have been arrested and detained for peacefully exercising their internationally and constitutionally protected rights, principally the right to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of religion or belief. The list does not include individuals who have engaged in or advocated violence. 

In 2019, Vietnam arrested 38 local human rights activists and Australian citizen Chau Van Kham. The communist regime also convicted 38 local activists and two foreigners American citizen Michael Minh Phuong Nguyen and Australian resident Chau Van Kham, sentencing them to a total of 207.5 years in prison and 47 years of probation. Activist Ha Hai Ninh was convicted but his jail sentence was not clear. 

Vietnam still holds 19 activists in pre-trial detention, 14 of them were arrested in 2018 and held for more than 14 months, and five of them were arrested in 2019. Among them is prominent dissident journalist Pham Chi Dung. 

Twenty-two of the prisoners of conscience identified by Defend the Defenders are female. All of these women come from the majority Kinh ethnic group. In total, 166 people, or 72.4% of the list, are ethnic Kinh. The second-largest ethnic grouping on the list are Montagnards, a loose set of religious and ethnic minorities who live in the mountains of the Central Highlands. They account for 58 people, 24.7% of those on the list. Six from Hmong and two on the list are Khmer Krom. 

Most prisoners of conscience have been charged with or convicted of allegations under Articles 79, 87 and 88 of the1999 Penal Code or Article 109, 117 and 331 in the 2015 Criminal Code: 

– 48 activists convicted or charged with subversion (Article 79 of 1999 Penal Code or Article 109 in the 2015 Criminal Code); 

– 37 activists convicted and five charged with anti-state propaganda (Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code or Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code); 

– 57 people from ethnic minorities were convicted for undermining the national unity policy (Article 87 of the 1999 Penal Code or 116 of the 2015 Criminal Code); 

– 7 activists were convicted or charged with “abusing democratic freedom” (Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code or Article 331 of the 2015 Criminal Code); 

– 13 activists were charged with “disruption of security” under Article 118 of the 2015 Criminal Code; 

– 48 individuals were convicted of or charged with “disrupting public orders” (under Article 245 of the 1999 Penal Code or Article 318 of the 2015 Criminal Code) for their peaceful activities. Thirty-five of them were imprisoned for participating or being suspected of planning to participate in the mass demonstrations in mid-June 2018 and their aftermath; 

– Two activists Nguyen Van Vien and Chan Van Quyen were convicted of “terrosism” under Article 113 of the 2015 Criminal Code. 

– The charges for 10 individuals are unknown. 

Background: Vietnam’s government continues its intensified crackdown on local dissent by convicting many activists and arresting numerous other government critics, bloggers, Facebook users, nonviolent demonstrators, and other critics of the government. 

In order to deal with growing social dissatisfaction and silence activists as well as discourage critics, the government has applied severe measures, including sentencing democracy activists and human rights defenders to lengthy sentences, arresting outspoken bloggers and charging them with patently political “crimes,” and employing harsh measures to prevent street demonstrations. 

In recent months, authorities in a number of provinces have arrested local Facebookers who have less public popularity just for their online posts and live streams. 

Arrests in 2019: Between January 1 and December 31, Vietnam arrested 39 local activists and Vietnamese Australian Chau Van Kham. As many as 32 of them were charged with articles in the National Security provisions of the Penal Code.

 The latest victim of Vietnam’s arbitrary arrest was prominent independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, president of the unregistered Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam for his writing for the organization as well as the Voice of America (VOA), the Radio Free Asia (RFA) and other foreign outlets. He was detained and charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” after calling on the European Parliament not to approve the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA). 

As many as 21 Facebookers were arrested and charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda” or “abusing democratic freedom” for their writing or sharing articles on the social media network to promote human rights and multi-party democracy or criticize the communist government or just raise social issues such as corruption and environmental pollution. They were detained after the Cyber Security Law became effective, however, the allegations against them were not related to the law. 

Convictions: In 2019, Vietnam convicted 38 local activists and two foreigners, American citizen Michael Minh Phuong Nguyen and Australian resident Chau Van Kham to a total 207.5 years in jail and 47 years of probation. 

Mr. Nguyen, who was arrested by police in HCM City on July 7, 2018 together with local activists Huynh Duc Thanh Binh and Tran Long Phi on allegation of subversion under Article 109 of the Penal Code, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in their trial on June 24. Meanwhile, Mr. Chau Van Kham was convicted of “terrorism” and sentenced to 12 years in the first-instance hearing on November 11. 

Young activist Ha Hai Ninh was also convicted of subversion in July by a court in Quang Ninh province. However, his sentence has not been publicized. 

As many as 13 Facebookers were convicted of “conducting anti-state propaganda” or “abusing democratic freedom” in 2019 and sentenced to between 6 months and 11 years in prison. Pro-democracy activist and environmentalist Nguyen Nang Tinh was given the highest sentence of 11 years in prison and five years of probation for his peaceful actions aimed to promote human rights and protect the country’s sovereignty and environment. 

Vietnam’s authorities plan to hold the first-instance hearing on January 14 this year to try eight members of the unregistered group Hiến Pháp (Constitution) for their intention to hold peaceful demonstrations. Ms. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh and Ms. Hoang Thi Thu Vang were charged with Clause 1 of Article 118 and face imprisonment of between five and 15 years while Ms. Doan Thi Hong, Mr. Ngo Van Dung, Mr. Ho Van Cuong, Mr. Le Quy Loc, Mr. Tran Thanh Phuong and Mr. Do The Hoa were alleged with Clause 2 of the same article in the Criminal Code with imprisonment of between two and seven years in jail if are convicted. All of them were kidnapped in early September 2018 by the security forces in Ho Chi Minh City and held incommunicado for over a year before their families were allowed to visit them in prison in recent months. 

Mistreatment in prison: Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security continues its policy to keep prisoners, especially the prisoners of conscience, under hard living conditions in a bid to punish them for their non-violent activities but harmful for the communist regime and break their mental strength. Along with sending prisoners of conscience to prisons far from their families, it allows authorities in prisons to apply other measures to make the life of jailed activists harder such as denial of their rights to regular meetings with their families, receiving additional food and medicines from their relatives, or force them to work hard without proper protective equipment.

In response, dozens of prisoners of conscience have conducted hunger strikes to protest inhumane treatment. In June-July, jailed activists Truong Minh Duc, Nguyen Van Tuc, Tran Phi Dung, and Dao Quang Thuc carried out 40-day fasting to protest the authorities in Prison camp No. 6 in Nghe An province after the prison’s authorities removed electrical fans from their cells amid extremely hot summer. Police in Nghe An also brutally beat dozens of activists and relatives of prisoners of conscience when they went to the prison to support the fasting ones. 

Jailed labor activist and environmentalist Hoang Duc Binh and religious advocate Nguyen Bac Truyen also conducted a long hunger strike in An Diem Prison camp to protest the placement of their fellow Nguyen Van Hoa in a solitary cell. 

Pro-democracy activist Nguyen Van Dien, who is serving his six-year imprisonment in Prison camp No. 5 is carrying out his hunger strike from September 22, the second time within three months to demand better living conditions in prison. 

Due to low-quality food, poor hygienic conditions, and inadequate medical services in prison facilities, numerous prisoners of conscience have been suffered serious illness but not allowed to have proper medical treatments. As a result, two prisoners of conscience Dao Quang Thuc and Doan Dinh Nam died while serving their lengthy sentences in Prison camp No. 6 in Nghe An and Xuyen Moc Prison camp in the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau, respectively. Their families were not allowed to take their bodies to bury them and the prisons buried them in the prison’s cemeteries. Vietnam’s denial was strongly criticized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. 

Release from prison: In 2019, as many as 38 prisoners of conscience completed their imprisonment and returned home while Mr. Le Anh Hung, who was arrested on July 5, 2018 on allegation of “abusing democratic freedom” was transferred to a mental hospital for forced treatment. 

Among freed activists were Ms. Nguyen Dang Minh Man, who was convicted of subversion and sentenced to eight years in prison for her protest against China’s violations of the country’s sovereignty in the East Sea, and Mr. Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for “disrupting security” for his union activities. 

As many as 29 protesters of the mass demonstration in mid-June 2018 completed their sentence. They were sentenced to between eight and 18 months for participating in peaceful demonstrations to protest two bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security.



The term “prisoner of conscience” (POC) was coined by Peter Benenson in the 1960s. It refers to any individual “imprisoned for his/her political, religious or conscientiously held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or another status who have not used violence or advocated violence or hatred.” 

Defend the Defenders is Vietnam’s independent non-profit organization working to promote human and civil rights in the Southeast Asian nation. It has a network of dozens of human rights defenders across the nation who report human rights abuse in their areas.



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