HANOI: Vietnamese authorities have detained a prominent climate activist for alleged tax evasion, her husband said on Friday, adding to a list of environmentalists facing the accusation.
Hoang Thi Minh Hong, the founder of now-defunct NGO Change, which aimed to tackle some of the country’s most urgent environmental issues, was taken into custody in Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday.
“I can confirm Hong has been under temporary detention since May 31 with the accusation of tax evasion,” Hoang Vinh Nam told AFP.
Hong founded Change in 2013, focusing on mobilising Vietnamese, particularly young people, to take action against pressing environmental issues including climate change, the illegal wildlife trade, and pollution.
She announced last year that the NGO would close after Vietnam’s authoritarian government handed down prison terms for tax evasion to four environmental human rights defenders: Nguy Thi Khanh, Mai Phan Loi, Bach Hung Duong and Dang Dinh Bach.
“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,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“Leading environmental activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong is the latest victim in this accelerating crackdown.”
Hong, 50, has been widely recognised for her work: she joined the Obama Foundation Scholars programme at Columbia University in New York in 2018 and was listed by Forbes magazine among the 50 most influential Vietnamese women in 2019.
The United Nations’ human rights body said it was “deeply troubled” by the detention.
“The chilling effect of such cases brought under tax laws is palpable among civil society in Vietnam, and risks stifling debate on issues of importance to society as a whole,” said Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Khanh, a globally recognised climate and energy campaigner who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018, spent nearly a year in jail before she was released last month.
The founder of Green ID, one of Vietnam’s most well-known environmental organisations, Khanh had been among the few in the communist country challenging the government’s plans to increase coal power.
Dang Dinh Bach, a community lawyer and NGO worker, worked to inform people whose health and livelihoods were threatened by coal projects and other dirty industries. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that his imprisonment is unlawful.
Vietnam has committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a group of rich nations last year pledged to raise at least $15.5 billion to help get the country off fossil fuels.
Ben Swanton, the co-director of Project 88, a non-profit organisation advocating for human rights in Vietnam, said Hong’s arrest demonstrated that “contrary to its propaganda, the Vietnamese government does not respect the rule of law and does not want civil society to participate in the country’s energy transition”.
“Human rights defenders and environmental organisations must be able to participate freely and actively in shaping climate and environmental policies and decision-making,” Hurtado said on Friday.
In response to an AFP question on Hong’s arrest on Thursday, Nguyen Duc Thang, deputy spokesperson for the foreign ministry, said: “Vietnam has always affirmed its strong commitment in environmental protection and coping with climate change, green and sustainable development.”
“In Vietnam, individuals, associations and organisations, NGOs are guaranteed normal operation in accordance with laws and regulations, while at the same time, they must obey and take responsibilities for their activities before laws.”