Today’s conviction and imprisonment of human rights defender Pham Doan Trang is part of a concerted crackdown on dissent.


2021 in Vietnam is ending in much the same way as it began, with the imprisonment of high-profile critics of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). This time it was the turn of the democracy advocate and woman human rights defender Pham Doan Trang, who was sentenced to nine years imprisonment at a court in Hanoi yesterday after being charged with “conducting propaganda against the state.”

Observers will be disappointed, but few will be surprised. Today’s news follows the publication of the latest annual report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which listed Vietnam as having the fourth highest number of imprisoned journalists in 2021. Hopes for Trang were raised slightly in October, however, when her initial trial date of November 4 was delayed following a report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD). The statement expressed concern at Trang’s arrest, deemed her arrest to be politically motivated, and called for her immediate release. Officially, the trial was delayed after two members of the prosecution were forced to self-isolate, but observers were hopeful that the UNWGAD statement had pressured the authorities to reconsider a conviction.

Peaceful critics of the regime like Pham Doan Trang will continue to face persecution so long as the Vietnamese authorities continue to be empowered by overly broad laws like Articles 117 and 331, which criminalizes the spreading of “hostile” information and “abus(ing) democratic freedoms.” These vague prohibitions enable the government to crack down on any criticism to which it takes exception. In spite of its poor record on freedom of expression, Vietnam is likely to be elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council next year. If it is serious about its commitment to human rights, it must either discard or amend these laws so they cannot be applied to peaceful criticism of the government. This is an optimistic view, however, and there is little reason to expect Vietnam to change course any time soon. Expect Vietnam to continue locking up its critics in 2022.