Vietnamese activist accused of "abusing democratic freedoms"

Nguyen Van Hoa, who will be in detention during the investigation, is among a group of activists who exposed pollution damage caused by the Formosa Plastics Group to local communities. The disaster harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fishermen.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/RFA) – A Vietnamese activist known for filming protests against a polluting steel plant has been charged with “abusing democratic freedoms,” RFA’s Vietnamese Service has reported.

Police arrested Nguyen Van Hoa, 22, on 11 January, as well as several other activists, in advance of the Tet holiday (Vietnamese New Year), but the authorities notified his family of the charges only last Friday.

Hoa is accused of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organisations and/or citizens” under Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code.

Article 258 is one of several legal tools Hanoi uses to prosecute dissidents. If convicted, Hoa faces up to seven years in prison.

Whilst Hoa has been held for weeks in Ha Tinh province, his family has been prevented from seeing him.

“We went there to visit him, but the police did not let us,” the relative told RFA. “Today we received their notice and we are still waiting for more information from them.”

Hoa did nothing wrong, the relative added.

Others arrested

Hoa is among a group of activists arrested before the Tet New Year celebration, including Tran Thi Nga, who was accused of anti-government propaganda under article 88 of the penal code.

Nga is well known for defending the rights of Vietnamese migrant workers and victims of government land grabs.

Land seizure for development – often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents – is a major cause of protests in Vietnam and other authoritarian Asian countries like China and Cambodia.

Article 88 is considered a “national security offence” and carries a sentence of between three and 20 years of imprisonment. It also allows the incommunicado detention of Tran Thi Nga during the whole period of the investigation.

In June, the Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged it was responsible for the release of toxic chemicals from its massive steel plant located at the deep-water port in Ha Tinh Province.

The April spill killed an estimated 115 tonnes of fish and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four central provinces.

Vietnam's government said in a report to the National Assembly in July that the disaster had harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fishermen.

The company pledged US$ 500 million to clean up and compensate people affected by the spill, but the government has faced protests over the amount of the settlement and the slow pace of pay-outs.