The jailing of the Goldman Prize winner and other activists is raising global concerns.
Note: This story first appeared as a blog for Oil Change International.
They call her a soft-spoken Vietnamese national hero in the country’s fight against coal and the transition to clean, renewable energy. Nguy Thi Khanh is also one of the world’s leading environmental activists and the first Vietnamese recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
While Nguy Thi Khanh’s work over several decades has won her plaudits from across the globe, it has now come at a personal price. She was arrested in February in the latest among a string of efforts by the government to repress Vietnamese activists. In June, she was sentenced to prison on trumped-up tax evasion charges, a widely condemned attempt to silence Vietnam’s most influential environmentalist.
Khanh’s detention has been met with demands from governments and environmental and human rights organizations around the world for her and her fellow activists to be released and their charges dropped. International climate change organization Oil Change International (OCI) joined the call in late June, demanding her release along with other Vietnamese environmental activists. In a public statement, OCI said no nation could jail its environmental activists and claim to be a climate leader.
Khanh has spent her career fighting the expansion of fossil fuels. She was born in the Vietnamese city of Bac Giang under the shadow of a nearby thermal coal power plant, which she believes was responsible for a growing number of local cancers.
A decade ago, when the Vietnamese Government announced a development plan that included generating some 75,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity from coal, Khanh set up the Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID) to articulate a different vision for the country based on renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. She has been driving the implementation of the country’s one million solar rooftop homes program and started the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance.
Five years later, the government announced that it intended to implement GreenID’s recommendations on renewable energy and reduce the number of new proposed coal power plants. Khanh persuaded the authorities to remove a whopping 20,000 MW of coal power from the country’s national energy plan. The move was seen as a massive vindication for Khanh, who stands out as a strong female voice in an often male-dominated political power structure.
“The police or government agencies are never too far away. They are always following [climate activists]. Khanh said that was part of daily life.”
After winning the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2018, she publicly acknowledged her activism came with risks saying, “When we got global recognition, vested interest groups recognized who their enemy was, and they are very powerful.”
Julien Vincent, Executive Director of the finance-focused climate organization Market Forces and himself a Goldman Prize winner, told the New York Times that in Vietnam, “the police or government agencies are never too far away. They are always following [climate activists]. Khanh said that was part of daily life.”
All evidence points to the Vietnamese government arresting Khanh because she was becoming too powerful. When she was arrested in February, her office and home were raided. Documents and computers were seized.
Tax-related charges seem to be the de facto charges of choice for the Vietnamese authorities to try to stamp out the voices of activists openly critical of the government. Khanh’s arrest fits a broader pattern of increasing intimidation of environmental and free speech activists in Vietnam.
Earlier this year, another prominent civil society leader, Dang Dinh Bach, from the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center, was sentenced to five years in prison for tax evasion. Meanwhile, journalist Mai Phan Loi, the Head of the Center for Media in Educating Community, received a four-year prison term for tax fraud. And activist Bach Hung Duong was also sentenced to two years in prison. According to the Diplomat website, “all had spoken out against the Vietnamese government’s coal policies.”
In January, three members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam – Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan – were convicted and sentenced to between 11 and 15 years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch. A Vietnamese court sentenced land rights activist Can Thi Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu, contributors to the Liberal Publishing House, to eight years in prison in May; and writer Pham Chi Thanh to five and a half years in prison in July. Others recently convicted and sentenced in Vietnam include five members of the Clean Newspaper – Truong Chau Huu Danh, Doan Kien Giang, Le The Thang, Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao and Nguyen Thanh Nha – to between two years and four and a half years in prison. Prominent blogger Pham Doan Trang was sentenced to nine years, land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam to 10 and six years, respectively, democracy campaigner Do Nam Trung to 10 years and independent political candidate Le Trong Hung to five years in prison. All were charged with propaganda against the state.
Khanh’s arrest fits a broader pattern of increasing intimidation of environmental and free speech activists in Vietnam.
The imprisonment of Khanh and others has led to a growing number of governments and organizations around the world demanding their release. Michael Sutton, the Goldman Environmental Prize Executive Director, said, “We believe that the legal charges leveled against Khanh are part of a wider effort to silence environmental leaders in Vietnam.”
The U.S. State Department publicly stated its deep concern: “The United States calls on the Government of Vietnam to release Khanh, who has been recognized internationally for her work to advance climate change and sustainable energy issues in Vietnam, as well as other detained environmental activists working for the benefit of Vietnam and its people.“
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Khanh, and all the civil society activists in prison, “as their detention is arbitrary and merely aimed at punishing them for their human rights activities.”
In a public statement, the organization expressed its “deepest concern about the Vietnamese authorities’ use of legal harassment, especially the use of tax-related charges against environmental activists, as a strategy to criminalize them.”
Tasneem Essop, the Executive Director of the global organization Climate Action Network, said, “The repression, harassment and targeting of environmental defenders and civil society leaders is a dangerous trend across the world and highlights the enormous risks so many activists continue to take to simply do their work to protect people and the planet. We call for the immediate release of Nguy Thi Khanh and all other civil society activists recently targeted by the Vietnamese authorities,” Essop said. “We are closely watching the situation, not only in Vietnam but also elsewhere in the world. We stand in solidarity with all those fighting for a better, safer and just future. An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Susanne Wong, Asia Program Manager for OCI, added, “We need G7 leaders to use their influence to protect the rapidly shrinking civil society space in Vietnam. They should ensure that just transition packages with the Vietnamese government include provisions to protect civil society engagement in climate discussions and to guard against the use of administrative laws to silence activists.”
Featured photo: Medium