Early release for imprisoned climate activist as Vietnam aims for net zero goals

Early release for imprisoned climate activist as Vietnam aims for net zero goals

  • Vietnamese climate activist Nguy Thi Khanh was quietly released from prison this month, five months earlier than scheduled.
  • No reasoning has been given for Khanh’s release, which has not been formally announced or discussed in local media, but activists note that Vietnam will require international financing to pursue its decarbonization goals, including a recently signed power development plan.
  • Three prominent environmental activists remain imprisoned in Vietnam. One, Dang Dinh Bach, has announced plans to begin a hunger strike “to the death” on June 24.

On Saturday, May 13, Nguy Thi Khanh, the Goldman Environmental Prize-winning Vietnamese clean energy advocate, posted a surprising update on her personal Facebook page.

The English translation read: “Endless happiness to be back in the midst of family’s love, to meet and hug loved ones after 16 months of being isolated. Sincere thanks to everyone who has cared, shared and helped me personally and my family during the past year and a half.”

Khanh, the founder of the Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID) and one of Vietnam’s most highly regarded environmental advocates, was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of tax evasion in June 2022. Her sentence was later reduced to 21 months, meaning she got out five months early.

Her arrest and subsequent sentencing sent shock waves through the country’s NGO community and drew criticism from the United States, Canada, the European Union and numerous international climate organizations.

The early release came as just as big of a shock.

“I was very surprised when I heard the news,” said P.Q. (not real initials), an environmental activist who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “She received an unfair, unjust sentence, but I am glad she was released early and relieved that she looks well and healthy.”

Nguy Thi Khanh received the Goldman Environmental prize in 2018. Image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

GreenID has not announced Khanh’s release, and domestic media in Vietnam have made no mention of the development, leaving those in the NGO and climate community to wonder what changed.

“I think we are all curious what caused that decision,” P.Q. added. “Must have been a combination of pressure from her networks inside the country and international communities.”

“No official reason or statement was given with respect to Khanh’s release,” said Maureen Harris, senior adviser at International Rivers. “We therefore can’t know the government’s stance. However, as Vietnam prepares for the momentous challenge of achieving its commitment to net zero by 2050, climate experts and environmental advocates will be essential to the process and to a successful just transition.”

At COP26, Vietnam’s prime minister pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, an enormous task for a fast-growing country that currently relies on coal for much of its energy.

In December, Vietnam also signed a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) with international partners including the European Union, the United Kingdom and the U.S. In theory, the agreement will unlock $15.5 billion in financing to assist Vietnam’s decarbonization.

But the imprisonment of Khanh, who had worked closely with the government on previous energy plans, as well as three other prominent environmentalists, Dang Dinh Bach, Mai Phan Loi and Bach Hung Duong, on similar charges was a major sticking point.

“Vietnam is now working on JETP, and the ‘just’ part will require the fair involvement of different players in society, particularly local NGOs,” P.Q. said. “The release of these NGO leaders would make the NGO community feel more confident about contributing their expertise and voices. I am sure that would make the JETP foreign partners feel assured that the government aligns with their commitments.”

In addition to JETP and the COP26 pledge, on May 16, the Vietnamese government approved a long-delayed plan that will guide energy policy through 2030. Called Power Development Plan 8, the policy forecasts ambitious growth in renewable energy and less reliance on coal and will require $135 billion to implement.

Commercial coal shipping in Vietnam.
Commercial coal shipping in Vietnam. Nguy Thi Khanh won awards for her work to reduce Vietnam’s dependence on coal-fired power while increasing the planned share of renewable energy. Image by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The hunger strike

Within this context, a renewed focus is now on the remaining imprisoned advocates.

The most high-profile is Dang Dinh Bach, an environmental lawyer and former director of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center. In 2021, he was sentenced to five years in prison on tax evasion charges.

The U.N. Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently called Bach’s imprisonment a “violation of international law” while expressing concerns about a “systemic problem with arbitrary detention.”

A dramatic recent development has added urgency to his case: On June 24, the two-year anniversary of his arrest, Bach plans to begin a hunger strike “to the death” to demand his freedom.

Meena Jagannath, director of global programs and coordinator of the Global Network of Movement Lawyers, which Bach is part of, is co-organizing a campaign called Stand with Bach.

Environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach
Environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach plans to begin a hunger strike “to the death” on June 24 to demand his freedom. Image courtesy of Standwithbach.org.

“The gravity of his message made it absolutely clear that those of us who know and support Bach, those of us who support communities and are human rights defenders ourselves, had to do something meaningful to support his call for justice and freedom,” she said.

The Stand with Bach campaign began in January, just after the JETP signing.

“Given the price tag on the package, advocates wanted to ensure that provisions regarding the protection and participation of civil society actors like Bach be included in the agreement,” Jagannath added. “The states ultimately did not include this provision. As a result, in addition to the Stand with Bach campaign’s call for Bach’s release, it was meant to draw attention to the need for stronger protections for civil society actors and organizations that can ensure implementation of the agreement on the ground.”

Members of the Global Network of Movement Lawyers began a one-month “relay” hunger strike on May 24 in solidary with Bach, with one member of the organization going on strike for one day at a time.

“We hope that our actions will move the Vietnamese government to release Bach unconditionally and exonerate him,” Jagannath said.

Banner image: Vietnamese climate activist Nguy Thi Khanh. Image by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

Vietnam’s Human Rights Council bid under fire after environmentalists jailed

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