Vietnam court jails climate activist for tax evasion

Hoang Thi Minh Hong is at least the fifth green campaigner in Vietnam to be jailed on tax evasion charges in the last two years – Copyright AFP Jim WATSON

Vietnam jailed a leading climate activist for three years for tax evasion Thursday, a sentence her family condemned as “unfair”, as the communist state ramps up a crackdown on environmentalists.

Hoang Thi Minh Hong was sentenced by a court in Ho Chi Minh City for dodging $275,000 in taxes related to her environmental campaign group CHANGE.

The 50-year-old is at least the fifth green campaigner to be jailed on tax evasion charges in the last two years — even as Vietnam’s authoritarian government seeks to amplify its attempts to cut emissions.

Her lawyer Nguyen Van Tu told AFP that in addition to the prison sentence, the court also imposed a 100 million dong ($4,000) fine.

Hong’s husband Hoang Vinh Nam told AFP he was “disappointed” at the verdict.

“The sentence given to Hong today was too heavy,” he said.

“I think it was unfair to Hong. The defence lawyer did his best but his arguments were not considered properly.”

State media quoted the indictment as saying the charges related to revenue generated by CHANGE from 2012 to 2022.

Hong admitted the charges and along with her family paid the state 3.5 billion dong ($145,000) in return for leniency, state media said.

Hong founded CHANGE to mobilise Vietnamese, particularly young people, to take action on pressing environmental issues, including climate change, the illegal wildlife trade and pollution.

But she abruptly shut down the group last year after four environmental and human rights activists were jailed for tax evasion.

– Crackdown –

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.

But the government tolerates no opposition to one-party rule, with critics facing intimidation, harassment and restricted movement, and it has shown little appetite for dissenting voices on environmental issues. 

Earlier this month, Hanoi police detained the director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition — an independent energy policy think tank.

Ngo Thi To Nhien, who has worked with the EU, World Bank and United Nations, was reportedly working on the implementation plan for Vietnam’s Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), a $15-billion G7-funded project to help wean Vietnam off fossil fuels.

No official information on Nhien’s accusation has been made public.

Hong has been recognised internationally for her work: She joined the Obama Foundation Scholars programme in New York in 2018 and was listed by Forbes among the 50 most influential Vietnamese women in 2019.

When she was detained in May, the UN’s human rights body was among many international groups to voice concern, warning of the “chilling effect” of tax cases against civil society groups.

Amnesty International’s Ming Yu Hah called for international pressure on Vietnam to stop hounding green campaigners.

“This verdict is a self-inflicted wound on Vietnam’s ability to tackle one of the most seismic issues of our time,” Ming said.

“It is also the latest example of authorities’ intentional misuse of tax laws to wage a crackdown on environmental activists.”

Among the four green activists jailed last year was Dang Dinh Bach, a lawyer and NGO worker who worked to inform people whose health and livelihoods were threatened by coal projects and other polluting industries. 

His wife, Tran Phuong Thao, said his five-year prison sentence was “a never-ending nightmare” for the family, in an opinion article in Nikkei Asia.

She warned that Vietnam’s JETP “cannot succeed” while it “silences, jails and tortures its environmental defenders”.

Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden visited Hanoi to agree to a new “strategic partnership”, signing numerous deals on economic cooperation, training and resources.

During the visit, Biden said he had pressed the Vietnamese leadership on human rights, though no details were given and critics have accused him of paying lip service to the issue.

Vietnam court jails climate activist for tax evasion
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