The United States and United Nations has criticised Vietnam’s detention of a prominent climate activist, saying such actions were part of a broader trend towards curbing free speech.
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“The United States is concerned by the detention of leaders and staff of CHANGE, including the ongoing detention of CHANGE’s founder Hoang Thi Minh Hong,” Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement on Friday.
“We call on Vietnam to respect the rights of those detained and to respect and protect the freedoms of expression and association for all Vietnamese people,” Miller said.
Hong and the other members were arrested according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. While others were released, Hong was kept on charges of tax evasion, it said in a statement on Friday.
She is the fifth prominent environmental human rights defender arrested in Vietnam for alleged tax evasion in the last two years, the UN rights agency said.
Hong founded the non-governmental organisation CHANGE in 2013, focusing on mobilising Vietnamese, particularly young people, to take action against climate change, the illegal wildlife trade and pollution.
Vietnam is among the top five nations contributing to ocean plastic.
Hong shut the group down last year after the arrests of other human rights defenders also for alleged tax evasion.
The United States and the United Nations both said the detentions were part of a wider trend of Vietnamese authorities targeting free speech.
“These detentions by Vietnamese authorities are part of a concerning pattern of arrests of local environmental and civil society advocates,” the Department of State’s Miller said.
Nguyen Duc Thang, deputy spokesperson for the foreign ministry, told AFP on Thursday that Vietnam is committed to “environmental protection and coping with climate change”, but that NGOs must follow the law.
“In Vietnam, individuals, associations and organisations, NGOs are guaranteed normal operation in accordance with laws and regulations, while at the same time, they must obey and take responsibilities for their activities before laws.”
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch accused Vietnam of using its “vague and flawed tax law to target environmentalists and climate change activists with politically motivated prosecutions”.
“Leading environmental activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong is the latest victim in this accelerating crackdown,” he said.
Hong, 50, once touted as “the climate hero” in her country, joined the Obama Foundation Scholars programme at Columbia University in New York in 2018 and was listed by Forbes magazine among the 50 most influential Vietnamese women in 2019.
The UN’s human rights body said it was “deeply troubled” by the detention.
“The chilling effect of such cases brought under tax laws is palpable among civil society in Vietnam, and risks stifling debate on issues of importance to society as a whole,” said Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.