A Vietnamese climate activist has been jailed for tax fraud as the country’s authoritarian government cracks down on environmentalists while developing a multi-billion dollar clean energy transition plan with rich nations.
A court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Hoang Thi Minh Hong on Thursday to three years in prison for dodging $275,000 in taxes related to her climate campaign group CHANGE, her lawyer said. In addition to the jail term, she was fined 100 million Vietnamese dong ($4,100).
The 50-year-old is at least the fifth climate and environmental campaigner to be jailed on tax evasion charges in the last two years in Vietnam. The trial only lasted half a day after Hong pled guilty to charges of dodging tax payments during the 2012-2022 period.
“This conviction is a total fraud, nobody should be fooled by it,” Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project charity told Reuters. “This is yet another example of the law being weaponised to persecute climate activists who are fighting to save the planet”.
String of arrests
Hong’s imprisonment comes two weeks after the arrest of Ngo Thi To Nhien, director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, an independent energy policy think-tank.
Nhien worked for the EU, the UN, and the World Bank and was reportedly providing technical advice for the development of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) – a $15.5 billion clean energy financing deal made between Vietnam and G7 nations plus the EU, Norway and Denmark.
The continued crackdown on climate experts and activists poses serious questions to the group of rich nations and investors partnering with the Vietnamese government on a coal-to-clean energy transition.
The US government is “deeply concerned” by Hong’s sentencing, a State Department spokesperson said. “We urge Vietnam to ensure its actions are consistent with the human rights provisions of Vietnam’s constitution and its international commitments, including to consult with non-government stakeholders as part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (Jetp)”, it added.
Announced in December 2022, the agreement stated the need for the media and NGOs to be included in the process “so as to ensure a broad social consensus” and ensure the transition to be “just and equitable”. Campaign group Global Witness has criticised the language as “weak”.
The treatment of civil society and energy experts had been a sticking point in negotiations. A spokesperson for the German government, which is also funding the JETP, told Climate Home in November 2022 it had raised human rights concerns with the Vietnamese government. A separate source with knowledge of those discussions said the Germans “received significant pushback”.
But the spokesperson also hoped that the deal could help activists. “With the agreement on the JETP, we also hope to be able to send a positive signal to climate activists,” the spokesperson said at the time.
The German government “will continue to demand” the active participation of civil society in the energy transition process, a spokesperson told Climate Home News after Hong’s imprisonment. “The German Government regularly takes its opportunities to raise and present its concerns to partners [of the Jetp] and the Vietnamese government”, it added.
Concerns over deal
Vietnam is a one-party state run by the Communist party without democratic elections. It ranks low on human rights indexes.
When Hoang Thi Minh Hong was first detained in June, the German government said it was concerned by the arrest and viewed it “critically” in regards to the implementation of the Jetp.
Norly Mercado is the Asia Regional Director of 350.org, a partner organization of CHANGE. She said the “unjust imprisonment of fearless changemakers like Hong not only imperils initiatives within Vietnam such as its JETP deal, but also undermines the country’s vital role in shaping a fair and equitable response to the urgent climate crisis”.
Climate Home News has reached out to the UK government and the European Commission for comment.
The article was updated on 29/9 to include comments from the German and US governments.