Vietnam: pro-democracy defender sentenced to five years and six months in irregular trial, his wife vilified and detainedEvent
- Viet Nam
- Initial Date
- May 25, 2023
- Event Description
A court in the central Vietnamese city of Danang sentenced activist Bui Tuan Lam – known as “Onion Bae” – to five years and six months in prison Thursday, along with four years of probation, one of his lawyers Le Dinh Viet told RFA.
He was convicted of propaganda under Article 117 of the country’s Penal Code, which carries a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 12, after being found guilty of criticizing the government online.
Bui, 39, who ran a beef noodle stall in Danang, achieved notoriety in 2021 after posting an online video mimicking the Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, known as “Salt Bae.”
The video was widely seen as a mockery of Vietnam’s minister of public security, To Lam, who was caught on film being hand-fed one of Salt Bae’s gold-encrusted steaks by the chef at his London restaurant at a cost of 1,450 pounds (U.S.$1,790).
The minister was in the U.K. as part of a Vietnamese government delegation which attended the COP26 climate change conference in Scotland.
Critics wondered how the official could afford the extravagant meal on a monthly salary of $660.
In Bui’s video clip, he calls himself “Onion Bae” and dramatically sprinkles spring onions into a bowl of soup, mimicking the signature move of the celebrity chef.
Bui was later summoned by Danang police for questioning and arrested and charged in September 2022.
Article 117 of the country’s Penal Code criminalizes “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” It is frequently used by authorities to restrict freedom of expression and opinions deemed critical of the government.
According to Danang People’s Procuracy’s indictment, Bui posted 19 articles on his Facebook account and 25 videos and articles on his YouTube account from April 17, 2020, to July 26, 2022. The articles and videos included content that it claimed were “distorting, defaming people’s government” and “fabricating and causing confusion among people.”
“The Vietnamese authorities deem just about anything as ‘propaganda against the state’ to crack down on activists and dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch ahead of the verdict.
“The Vietnamese government should abolish rights-abusing article 117 of the penal code and stop prosecuting Bui Tuan Lam and others for criticizing the Vietnamese Communist Party.”
Bui is a seasoned activist, spending many years speaking out against China’s territorial claims in parts of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam and also campaigning to protect the environment. He received threats from the Danang police after providing food to local people during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
After his “Onion Bae” video went viral the police ordered him to close his noodle stall, which he did for a short while ahead of his arrest.
“The authorities have hounded him for his posts and videos, showing the length that Vietnamese authorities can go to deny people the enjoyment of their right to freedom of expression, no matter how benign, satirical or light-hearted,” said Amnesty International Interim Deputy Regional Director for Research Montse Ferrer before the verdict was handed down.
“Satire is not a crime,” she added.
Authorities prevented Bui Tuan Lam’s lawyers from meeting with him ahead of the trial, claiming last month that he refused representation. After his wife Le Than Lam demanded to meet with Bui to find out the truth the People’s Procuracy of Danang issued a notice allowing lawyers to represent him.
The court approved Le Dinh Viet’s registration to be Bui Tuan Lam’s lawyer for the trial. But when Viet went to Danang Police’s detention facility where Bui Tuan Lam was being held, he said staff didn’t allow him to see his client, claiming the judge hadn’t had time to review the investigation report.
Lawyers Le Dinh Viet and Ngo Anh Tuan were allowed to represent Bui in court on Thursday but the latter was removed from the court after requesting a fair debate between defense lawyers and prosecutors, Le Dinh Viet told RFA.
“Today's trial I feel is similar to the political cases that I have been involved in. Law enforcement itself was not sufficiently exercised during the hearing of the case,” he said, criticizing the so-called “expert conclusions” given by members of Danang’s Department of Information and Communication during Thursday’s trial.
“Those assessment conclusions have many violations, including violations of expertise authority, violations of the roles of experts, even some which violate the basic principles of the law on judicial expertise."
"In my opinion, given the circumstances and developments of today's trial, the issuance of the judgment does not guarantee the objectivity nor guarantee the legal rights of defendant Bui Tuan Lam."
Bui pleaded “not guilty” plea, saying he exercised the right to freedom of expression. His lawyers said he would appeal the verdict.
Bui’s wife and family were not allowed to attend the trial. Le Dinh Viet said they had been detained by the police.
Mrs Le Thanh Lam's account of what happened to her post trial, Vietnam Times 28 May https://vietnamthoibao.org/vntb-phien-toa-xu-bui-tuan-lam-qua-kinh-khung/
Mr Lam was sentenced to 5 years 6 months jail, plus 4 years probation for anti-state propaganda. Many believe this was Police Minister To Lam's revenge on him, for his video post imitating celebrated chef Salt Bae, who was filmed feeding Mr To Lam a piece of gold-encrusted steak.
Mr Tuan Lam's trial ended at around 12pm 25 May. His wife, Le Thanh Lam, told BBC Viet 26 May, what happened after:
After the sentencing, two prison vans arrived to transport Mr Lam. Mrs Lam and her family were not allowed to attend the trial. After waiting for over 5 hours outside, family members ran after the vans, hoping to see Mr Lam.
We cried 'Bui Tuan Lam is innocent'. Right after that, a policeman kept me in a neck hold. Many members of the police also lunged at me, brutally dragged me away like a pig, manhandled me, pushed me into their vehicle. [Photo showed Mrs Lam's large scrapes on both knees.]
I saw by two brothers-in-law being repeatedly bashed amidst the cry of a ward police: 'Bash these two louts, till they die!'
I asked them, why they treated me that way. A policeman said, 'I did it! So what!' My two brothers-in-law were also taken away forcefully to Hoa Cuong Bac, Hai Chau area. They were released at around 2pm, but I was still detained.
The police forced her to hand over her mobile phone and signed a document acknowledging having to pay a fine, for taking photos at the court precinct.
During her detention, nasty insults and sinister statements about her husband and her children were thrown at her.
I told them, my phone is my private possession which must not be violated. At that, many more police rushed into the room to intimidate me and behave forcefully against me. Some who had monitored my family since the morning, now saying they were ordinary citizens who witnessed I had filmed and taken photos of the court precinct.
A policeman swore to no one in particular: 'Not sticking to selling noodles to feed the kids, doing silly things instead.' I asked him: 'You're talking about whom?' He pointed his index finger at me: 'I talked about you, silly cow.' More policemen came into the room. One insulted me: 'Silly cow, don't you have any shame... You think you are something special... What a disgrace...'
Another one threatened me: 'You and your kids, just wait to see if you will be able to live in peace.'
A group of men threatened a mother with 3 young kids. They must be very proud of themselves???
The policewomen body searched me, including private and sensitive areas, to check for recording and electronic devices. They checked everything in my possession, including my lipstick, my cards...
At that time, I realised I was no longer considered a human being, I couldn't believe what was happening to me.
I have never been insulted and physically violated in such an immoral way. Not having my password, they wetted my phone.
The family's hope to at least see Mr Lam's face was destroyed.
They didn't spare even a tiny space so we could see his face, in a trial that was supposed to be open.
What made them feel so afraid of a patriotic man in white T-shirt, wearing a rosary around his neck?
State media reported on Mr Lam's trial using his old photos. Photos inside and outside the court on the day of the trial 25 May were totally absent.
Defence lawyer Mr Ngo Anh Tuan evicted from court room
Lawyers Messrs Ngo Anh Tuan and Le Dinh Viet represented Mr Lam. During the trial, Mr Tuan asked the prosecutor side to clarify their points of argument. A judge - who was not the chief judge - told him not to repeat what he had previously said.
Mr Tuan told him, according to the law, he could continue to present his argument. However this judge ordered him to leave the court chamber, even though he didn't raise his voice or behave in an aggressive manner.
Nevertheless, he agreed to leave the court room, 'not wanting to make the court's atmosphere any heavier'.
Mr Tuan then went to a room in the court building to sit down. Here, a group of people who didn't introduce their names came to work with him.
'They filmed and prepared a report not reflecting what really happened. Without my colleague Le Dinh Viet as my witness, I won't have any chance to prove my innocence... I have participated in many political cases, but I had never been evicted from the court room in such an unjust and absurd way like today.
'It seems for some people, they can do whatever they like with political prisoners, same with their lawyers... The idea that [political prisoners are a sub-class] led them to behave outside their authority.'
- Impact of Event
- Gender of HRD
- (Arbitrary) Arrest and Detention
- Denial Fair Trial
- Judicial Harassment
- Violence (physical)
- Rights Concerned
- Freedom of expression
- Right to fair trial
- Right to healthy and safe environment
- Right to liberty and security
- Right to protect reputation
- Freedom of expression
- Family of HRD
- Pro-democracy defender
- Monitoring Status
- Event Location
- Event Location
- Summary for Publications
On 25 May 2023, Bui Tuan Lam, pro-democracy defender, was sentenced to five years and six months imprisonment on anti-state propaganda charges after irregular trial where one of his lawyer was ordered to leave the courtroom by a court, and his wife was violently detained and vilified by the police in Danang, Vietnam.