Vietnam: Pro-democracy advocate and writer held, others harassed

New York, September 6, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the detention in Vietnam of Cong Thanh Do, a political activist and pro-democracy advocate who writes on the Internet under the pen name Tran Nam. He was detained August 14 while on vacation with his family in Phan Thiet.

Do, who is a U.S. citizen, spent 10 days in solitary confinement and remains in detention in Ho Chi Minh City under investigation for alleged terrorist activities, according to his family, who publicized his jailing on Sunday.

His detention comes as authorities have stepped up harassment of dissident writers in Vietnam, including five members of the 8406 Group, a pro-democracy network that recently launched an online publication advocating for freedom and human rights. The group is called 8406 because it was started on April 8, 2006. Do Nam Hai, a writer known by his pen name Phuong Nam was also targeted for harassment by the authorities.

“Cong Thanh Do is a long time pro-democracy advocate who has researched and reported the harassment and imprisonment of political activists, dissidents and writers in Vietnam, and who is now imprisoned himself,” said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ. “Vietnam’s recent actions against dissidents and writers threaten to do grave harm to the country’s international standing—particularly as it makes a bid for accession to the World Trade Organization.”

Several members of the U.S. Congress have voiced objections to Washington granting Vietnam Permanent Normal Trade Relations, and backing its eventual WTO membership, because of human rights concerns. In a statement on Tuesday, U.S. Representative Zoë Lofgren condemned Do’s imprisonment and said that she was working to ensure his release.

Do, a computer technician from California, was visiting family members with his wife Jane Dobui and his nine-year-old son when he and his wife were detained, brought to separate locations and questioned about his contacts and activities. Dobui was released after several hours, but Do was taken to a detention center in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese authorities have accused him of terrorist activities, including a plot to attack the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, according to his family.

In a meeting granted at the request of the U.S. Consulate, a U.S. official met with Do on Friday. In the meeting, Do said that he was a member of an opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party. He rejected accusations of violent activities, and his Hanoi-based lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, said that he believes Do has been targeted for his political work. At the September meeting, Do told the consular official that he was launching a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment.

Authorities rounded up dissident writers in the weeks before Vietnam’s Independence Day on September 2. Writers Nguyen Khac Toan and Hoang Tien, were questioned and detained repeatedly from August 12 through August 25 about their efforts to launch a newspaper advocating freedom and democracy. Because press laws in Vietnam forbid the publication and distribution of independent news and commentary, the two writers and three colleagues intended to post their publication online. The newspaper Tu Do Dan Chu (Freedom and Democracy) was successfully posted on September 2, but was quickly blocked by Vietnamese authorities, according to the lawyer Dai who was involved in the publication.

Writer Hai, who published a book in the United States titled Let’s Have a Referendum, was fined earlier this year the equivalent of more than US$1000 for “distributing or storing with an aim to distribute” illegal publications. Last month, police threatened to confiscate and auction off his property to pay the fines, according to CPJ sources.

Read CPJ’s protest letter to President Nguyen Minh Triet about the treatment of journalists in Vietnam.