Conservation news

Vietnamese activist gets 14-year sentence for documenting chemical spill

A fish die off from chemical spill in Vietnam in 2016. Photo via Maisondelinspir.

A fish die off from chemical spill in Vietnam in 2016. Photo via Maisondelinspir.

  • On Tuesday, a Vietnamese court sentenced Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in prison for activism related to a chemical spill that resulted in a massive fish kill in 2016.
  • The sentence appears to be the harshest so far in a series of punitive measures the Vietnamese government has taken against citizens protesting or writing about the spill.
  • At the same trial another activist, Nguyen Nam Phong, was sentenced to two years in prison.

On Tuesday, a Vietnamese court sentenced Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in prison for activism related to a chemical spill that resulted in a massive fish kill in 2016. The sentence appears to be the harshest so far in a series of punitive measures the Vietnamese government has taken against citizens protesting or blogging about the spill.

“Hoang Duc Binh was convicted of abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state, organization and people and opposing officers on duty, lawyer Ha Huy Son said,” the Associated Press reported on February 6.

News reports gave conflicting accounts of the exact activities that landed Binh in trouble with authorities. The Associated Press reported that Bihn had livestreamed video of fishermen marching to file a lawsuit over the spill. “During last February’s livestream on Facebook, Binh commented that the fishermen were stopped and beaten by authorities. Son said Binh told the court that he made the comments, but he denied committing a crime because what he said was true. The court said his comments were untrue and slandered authorities,” the Associated Press reported.

However, Reuters reported that Binh had led a number of protests against the government over its handling of the spill.

At the same trial another activist, Nguyen Nam Phong, was sentenced to two years in prison for “opposing officers on duty,” according to the Associated Press. The trial was held in Nghe An province in north-central Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province, where the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company leaked chemicals that caused a massive fish kill in 2016. Image by TUBS via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In April, 2016, a spill at the Taiwanese-owned Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company sent toxic chemicals into the ocean, littering 125 miles (200 kilometers) of Vietnam’s north-central coastline with an estimated 70 tons of dead fish. Seabird colonies were reportedly decimated, and fishermen in four provinces were left without work.

The company’s initial unwillingness to admit culpability and the government’s reluctant and slow response to the environmental disaster sparked public outcry. Protests erupted in several parts of the country, which the government quickly broke up. The company has since admitted fault and agreed to pay $500 million to clean up the environment and compensate people affected by the spill, according to a July 2016 Associated Press report.

Binh’s harsh 14-year sentence fits a larger pattern of the communist Vietnamese government quashing dissent unleashed by the Formosa chemical spill. He and Phong are the latest in a string of activists to be punished for their vocal opposition to the Formosa situation. “Eight people have been convicted and given prison sentences for spreading propaganda against the state over the past month,” the recent Associated Press report notes.

In June, blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who goes by Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom, online, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state,” according to Mongabay reporting. She had been writing about Vietnamese environmental and human rights issues for years, but the Formosa incident brought attention to her work. In November one of her lawyers was disbarred for working with defendants the Vietnamese government regards as dissidents.

Also in November, a young blogger named Nguyen Van Hoa was sentenced to seven years in prison followed by three years of house arrest for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Mongabay reported.

“The sentences have been more and more severe, perhaps because of weaker interventions from the outsiders and foreigners, and also because the power holders think this sentence could have deterrence effect,” Son, Binh and Phong’s lawyer, told Reuters.

Repercussions from the 2016 spill are still being felt. Late last month about 100 residents from central Vietnam’s Quang Binh Province, most of them fishers, held several days of protests over slow and inadequate compensation for livelihoods lost due to the spill, according to Radio Free Asia.

The same week, Nikkei Asian Review reported that the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company plans to double its plant’s capacity this summer.

Banner image via Maisondelinspir.

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