Vietnam jails environmental activist for three years over tax fraud

Rights groups condemn sentence against prominent campaigner on issues of climate change and environmental degradation.

A Vietnamese farmer walking past a lake that was once a rice field
Vietnamese farmers are having to change their crops and ways of working because of climate change [File: Thanh Hue/Reuters]

Vietnam has sentenced prominent environmental activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong to three years in prison on tax fraud charges.

The state-run Thanh Nien newspaper said Hong, the founder of CHANGE, a now-defunct environmental campaign group, was convicted after a one-day trial in southern Ho Chi Minh City.

She was found guilty of dodging nearly $275,000 in taxes related to CHANGE, her lawyer Nguyen Van Tu told the AFP news agency.

“This conviction is a total fraud, nobody should be fooled by it,” said Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project charity.

“This is yet another example of the law being weaponised to persecute climate activists who are fighting to save the planet.”

The United States and a number of human rights groups had expressed their concerns about Hong and the crackdown on CHANGE when she was arrested in June.

In response to Thursday’s decision, rights group Amnesty International urged Vietnam to end its crackdown on environmental defenders.

“This verdict is a self-inflicted wound on Viet Nam’s ability to tackle one of the most seismic issues of our time,” Ming Yu, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for campaigning, said in a statement, urging the international community to condemn the decision and for Vietnam to drop all criminal charges against environmental activists.

“Authorities in Viet Nam must also wake up to the fact that they can only fulfil their climate goals and responsibilities by working with, rather than against, those most dedicated to the cause in their own country,” Ming added.

Hong, 51, founded CHANGE in 2013 to tackle problems related to climate change, pollution and endangered wildlife.

She secured international recognition for her campaigning, but abruptly shut the organisation down in October 2022 after the arrests of other actvists also for alleged tax evasion.

According to Amnesty, Hong is the fifth environmental defender to be arrested and accused of tax violations in the past two years.

Hong’s trial came only two weeks after United States’ President Joe Biden visited VIetnam after upgrading diplomatic relations, drawing criticism that human rights issues were being overlooked.

According to Human Rights Watch, there were at least 159 political prisoners in Vietnam in early September with 22 more in custody pending trial.

On September 15, Hanoi police detained Ngo Thi To Nhien, executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, an independent think tank focused on green energy policy. The United Nations human rights office this week raised concerns about the arrest.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies