Vietnamese environmentalist sentenced to 3 years in prison for tax evasion

  • Hoang Thi Minh Hong, founder of Vietnamese environmental advocacy group CHANGE, was sentenced Sept. 28 to three years in prison for tax evasion.
  • Hong is now the fifth prominent Vietnamese environmentalist to be charged with tax evasion. Activists say the country’s vaguely worded tax laws are weaponized by the government to punish people deemed as threats to authority.
  • In related news, activists say Ngo Thi To Nhien, executive director of the Hanoi-based Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition Social Enterprise, was detained by police Sept. 15, though the arrest has not yet been officially announced and it is not yet clear what charges she faces.

Hoang Thi Minh Hong, the prominent Vietnamese environmentalist, was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of tax evasion at the end of a brief trial in Ho Chi Minh City on Sept. 28.

Members of the diplomatic community who attempted to attend the trial were denied access.

Hong, who is an Obama Foundation Scholar, was arrested in the city May 31 in a move that shocked the country’s already-depleted civil society.

In 2013, she founded the Center of Hands-on Action and Networking for Growth and Environment (CHANGE), an NGO that led campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of wildlife trafficking and air pollution, among other environmental issues.

CHANGE shut down in late 2022 under increasing government pressure on Vietnamese NGOs, particularly those focusing on the environment and issues related to energy policy.

Prior to Hong’s detention, four other well-known environmentalists had been charged with tax evasion, including Goldman Environmental Prize winner Nguy Thi Khanh.

Khanh was released from prison early just two weeks before Hong’s arrest.

Prior to the trial, Human Rights Watch called for the Vietnamese government to drop its charges against Hong.

“The Vietnamese authorities are using the vaguely worded tax code as a weapon to punish environmental leaders whom the ruling Communist Party deems a threat to their power,” Phil Robertson, the organization’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement. “The government should stop punishing activists for peacefully advocating action on climate change and for green policies.”

According to state media, investigators claimed Hong directed her employees at CHANGE to follow procedures that resulted in 6.7 billion Vietnamese dong ($274,591) in avoided taxes. Her family has reportedly paid 3.5 billion dong ($143,443) to the state and is expected to account for the remainder of this figure.

In addition to the three-year prison sentence, Hong was fined 100 million dong ($4,098).

“Since Hong’s arrest, we have been to so many workshops on government tax policy on NGOs, and even lawyers can’t tell us exactly what we should do,” said an NGO leader who requested anonymity. “They designed these policies that way to punish people they don’t like.”

Karst forest in Vietnam. Activists working to defend Vietnam’s ecosystems from development projects are increasingly living in fear of detention and other repressive measures. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

In a related development, The 88 Project, an advocacy group, said that on Sept. 15, police detained Ngo Thi To Nhien, executive director of the Hanoi-based Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition Social Enterprise (VIETSE).

Nhien’s arrest has not been announced by the government and it is not clear what charges she is being held under.

According to their website, VIETSE is “an independent think tank, acting as a bridge between research and policy, with a mission to accelerate the transition of Vietnamese energy system [sic] in a sustainable and reliable manner.”

The move comes as the Vietnamese government works with international partners on a $15.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) aimed at reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Vietnam has also committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told Reuters: “We are aware of the arrest and are following the developments with concern.”

In a statement, Maureen Harris, senior adviser for International Rivers and a coordinator of the Vietnam Climate Defenders Coalition, said: “Vietnam is already in violation of the ‘just’ aspect of the JETP while civil society is severely constrained in its ability to participate. This latest arrest creates a chilling effect for anyone involved in the development of the JETP, as it signals that no independent voices in energy policy are safe. It also raises questions over how Vietnam’s JETP can be credibly developed and implemented when this kind of expertise is excluded.”

Banner image: Commercial coal shipping in Vietnam. Hong, is one of five activists working on issues related to air pollution and Vietnam’s energy transition to have been charged with tax evasion. Image by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Worries and whispers in Vietnam’s NGO community after activist’s sentencing

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