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Vietnam: outcry after leading climate activist arrested, accused of tax evasion

Wille Okon 158 June 2, 2023

Police in Vietnam have arrested a prominent environmental activist after accusing her of tax evasion, charges that have been dismissed by critics as politically motivated.

Hoang Thi Minh Hong, a former CEO of Change, an environment-focused NGO, was detained by police along with her husband, Nam Hoang, and former staff members of Change in Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday.

“The police searched our house and Hong’s office,” Nam told the Guardian. “Many staff members from Change were detained, but we were all released except Hong … I hope she will be released.”

Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch, said: “Vietnam’s selective use of its vague and flawed tax law to target environmentalists and climate change activists with politically motivated prosecutions is a new, extremely troubling development.

“Leading environmental activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong is the latest victim in this accelerating crackdown which should prompt serious concerns among the US, EU, and other governments who are lining up to provide resources to Vietnam’s climate change programs,” Robertson said.

Hong’s detention follows the recent prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of four environmental activists – Mai Phan Loi, Dang Dinh Bach, Bach Hung Duong, and Nguy Thi Khanh – under similar circumstances.

In December, Vietnam secured $15.5bn of funding through the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) with the EU, the UK and the US, which aims to help Vietnam reduce its carbon footprint.

Founded in 2013, Change sought to encourage Vietnamese to protect the environment by promoting conservation, offering education, and encouraging people to take action.

In 2019, Hong was listed among the 50 most influential Vietnamese women by Forbes Vietnam. In 2015, Climate Heroes listed Hong as a hero working tirelessly to protect the environment.

On 25 October 2022, Hong announced that she would be closing Change after running it for 10 years, amid wider fears of a crackdown on civil society. On 10 May, as Vietnam reported a record-breaking temperature of 44.1 degrees, Hong tweeted: “Yeah, I am melting like a piece of butter on frying pan. Climate change is happening no matter what we do. But we should still do everything to not make it worse. I had to shut down my NGO due to pressures, but I’ll find another way.”

At the Cop26 conference in Glasgow in 2021, prime minister Pham Minh Chinh said Vietnam will commit to reaching net zero carbon emission by 2050, even though Vietnam still gets more than 50% of its energy from coal.

Despite such bold claims, other prominent environmentalists such as Dang Dinh Bach, who heads the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center, remain in prison. He was sentenced to five years in jail in 2021 on tax evasion charges.

Bach said he will begin a hunger strike “to the death” on 24 June – two years after his arrest – to demand his release from prison.