“He never refused anyone who needed his assistance… He was doing his work with much humility… I believe that he belongs to a human category that could not ignore any injustices that happened around him.”Vu Quoc Dung, human rights defender with Veto!
“He is a man of honour, admired and respected by many”A supporterof Nguyen Bac Truyen
“Standing up for one’s own community is admirable; but standing up on behalf of others, when you yourself are being oppressed – that is truly courageous.”Ed Brown, Secretary-General at Stefanus Alliance International
These are just some of the many warm words of praise that CSW received when we asked supporters and friends of Nguyen Bac Truyen what they thought about his life’s work defending the rights of the most vulnerable people in Vietnam. They painted a vivid picture of Truyen as a person, and as jurist and activist:
“Nguyen Bac Truyen has dedicated his life to promoting human rights in Vietnam. As a legal expert, he provided free legal aid and human rights training to families of political prisoners, to victims of land grabbing and persecuted religious minorities… Nguyen Bac Truyen has shown that he is willing to pay a high price to defend the rights of others.”Ed Brown
“He is a multitalented human rights defender”, said Vu Quoc Dung, who went on to describe the way Truyen moved to another province to empower other Hoa Hao Buddhists through human rights education, before being forcibly evicted in 2014. He then worked for a Catholic organisation to provide assistance to disabled war veterans who face discrimination from the government.
One respondent pointed out that back in 2004 Truyen was praised by the state media because he was the first entrepreneur in Vietnam who voluntary introduced social compliance and gender equality standards in his two companies. However, the authorities’ praise quickly turned to scorn when Truyen began providing legal advice and assistance to religious communities and victims of discrimination: harassment, violent attacks and imprisonment followed. Truyen is currently serving an 11-year sentence in retaliation for his human rights work.
Sadly, Truyen’s is not a stand-alone case. A recent statement to the UN by CSW sets out both the obstacles and the personal risks experienced by legal professionals and human rights defenders in Vietnam.
“Lawyers who represent religious communities, activists and other individuals accused of anti-state crimes are subject to harassment, intimidation, and threat of disbarment. In some cases they are also arbitrarily detained in retaliation for their work.”
The statement cites the case of lawyer Vo An Don, who was disbarred in 2017 for criticising the Vietnamese Communist Party, according to an article by the independent non-profit online magazine, The Vietnamese. Don had worked on high-profile cases including that of blogger “Mother Mushroom”, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2017, and Ngo Thanh Kieu, who died in police custody in 2014. Don had also made allegations of corruption among lawyers.
CSW’s research finds that human rights lawyers and activists are frequently subject to physical intimidation; suspicious theft of electronic devices; and psychological intimidation by the authorities, including threat of disbarment.
UN member states and UN bodies have repeatedly raised concerns about access to legal counsel and violations against human rights defenders and their lawyers, including “excessive use of pretrial detention in the absence of legal guarantees.”
On 14 January 2021, four UN independent experts issued a statement criticising “a rising trend in prosecutions, arbitrary detention, reprisals, ill treatment and unfair trials targeting independent journalists, bloggers, pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders in Viet Nam” and “a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those willing to criticise the government.”
The abuses and obstacles described above not only violate the rights of the lawyers but also seriously undermine efforts to promote human rights in Vietnam. The government of Vietnam must immediately cease immediately all harassment and intimidation of lawyers, and guarantee protection from arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial and legal counsel, in line with the state’s international obligations.
One long-term supporter of Truyen described him as “a remarkable human rights defender who always selflessly stands up for other people’s rights even when that means putting his own life at risk.”
Such remarkable people should be recognised and celebrated, not locked away.
By CSW’s Asia Team
Featured Image: Reuters/Kham
 Name withheld for security reasons