Last month, prominent environmental defender Hoang Thi Hong publicly welcomed news that fellow climate activist and Goldman prize winner Nguy Thi Khanh had been released from prison, after being charged and sentenced for ‘tax evasion’ in 2022.

But days later, Hong was arrested on similar charges. This week she has reportedly been charged with evading more than five billion dong in tax – around £173,000.

As the fifth activist arrested in Vietnam in the last two years, Hong’s detention is part of a troubling pattern of seemingly politically motivated attacks against environmental defenders in the country.

The charges brought against Hong raise serious concerns that Vietnam’s vague tax laws are being weaponised against environmental defenders through arbitrary enforcement and disproportionately harsh penalties.

This same tactic was also used against environmental justice lawyer Đặng Đình Bách, who was arrested in June 2021, and sentenced to five years in prison. Bach’s arrest has been denounced by the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention as a “violation of international law” calling for his immediate release.

After two years away from his wife and baby son, Bach is now on a hunger strike to the death or release in defence of his innocence.

Bách is one of four activists known as the ‘Vietnam Four’, arrested between 2021 and 2022 after working to reduce the country’s reliance on coal. Their organisations collaborated as members of the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance (VSEA), a coalition advocating for better energy and environmental policies.

“I have witnessed so many painful stories of poverty and terrible diseases that weigh on abused communities in Vietnam,” said Bách in a statement from prison. “They are deprived of their land and livelihoods and do not have opportunities to speak out for justice.”

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"“In order to conceal the truth and threaten the voices of people, the Vietnamese authorities have arrested, convicted, and unjustly detained environmental and human rights activists in defiance of national and international law.”" Đặng Đình Bách

Most people indicted on a charge of tax evasion in Vietnam are placed under house arrest or released on bail. But the Vietnam Four were initially detained without charge and held for months in pretrial detention. Their one-day trials were closed, and all received hefty sentences.

This appears to be part of a wider movement by authorities to silence defenders and repress civic space with a number of organisations working to protect the environment reportedly shut down in recent years.

Despite being under fire for its human rights record, governments and investors across the world have pumped billions of dollars into Vietnam to help it move from coal to renewable energy. A $15.5 billion deal known as a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) was announced by the UK government along with the U.S. and other G7 countries last December. Additional financing partners include multilateral development banks such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), as well as other private financial institutions. 

Climate experts and environmental advocates will be essential to the process and to a successful just transition. “Climate and human rights go hand in hand; in order to address the climate emergency, governments and companies must ensure that that their policies and practices properly identify explicit protections and address risks to defenders” says Rachel Cox, Senior Campaigner, Land and Environmental Defenders Campaign. “This includes provisions that guarantee the free and safe participation of civil society in decision-making on the JETP and monitoring of its implementation.” Land and environmental defenders like Bach and Hong are the foundation of a just transition.

Several key JETP signatories including the UK and U.S. governments have released statements calling for Hong’s release.

Backers of the JETP- Vietnam deal must ensure that no financing is released until Bach, Hong, and other climate leaders unjustly imprisoned are released.

Today, with allies worldwide, we’re joining Bách’s hunger strike as part of a global effort to awareness. This relay-hunger strike is part of a wave of global solidarity resulting in over 80 organisations calling for his immediate release in line with the recommendation of the UN.

Join us and support Bach by calling for his release here.

The just transition to clean energy in Vietnam cannot happen if climate leaders like Bach and Hong are in jail.

And a transition can never be truly just if climate activists are criminalised for their work.