Truong Duy Nhat, a weekly contributor for RFA’s Vietnamese Service’s blog section, is being held in a Hanoi prison. He had gone missing on January 26, and he last communicated with Washington-based RFA editors two days earlier over his commentary on the growing opposition movement in Venezuela and the prospects of change in Communist-ruled Vietnam.
Nhat fled to Thailand to seek political asylum with a UN refugee agency, fueling fears in the exile community that he has been abducted by Vietnamese security agents.
“We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of Truong Duy Nhat,” RFA President Libby Liu said on Tuesday. “We hope to hear from him as soon as possible about his whereabouts and to be assured that he’s not in any danger,” she said.
Nhat’s disappearance has sent a chill through the Vietnamese refugee community in Thailand and prompted a call from Human Rights Watch for Thai authorities to investigate. RFA has also reported his case to the State Department and staff of several U.S. lawmakers.
Exile sources said that Nhat had gone to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, or UNHCR, in Bangkok on Jan. 25 to apply for refugee status and they subsequently lost contact with him.
Thailand-based associates of Nhat, who requested anonymity because they feared for their own safety, said that he went missing on Jan. 26 during a visit to Future Park, a huge mall on the outskirts of Bangkok. One of the sources said Nhat was “arrested” at an ice cream shop on the third floor of the mall.
Thai police said they don’t have Nhat in custody.
“We’ve checked through the list of detainees, we don’t see him, Truong Duy Nhat, on the list,” Police Colonel Tatpong Sarawanangkoon, who is in charge of the detention section at the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, told RFA.
The UNHCR was tightlipped, citing privacy concerns. Associate external relations officer Jennifer Harrison said: “Due to reasons of confidentiality and data protection, we are unable to comment on [or even confirm/deny the existence of] individual cases.”
Nhat’s wife, who is in Vietnam, and their Canada-based daughter are afraid to talk about his fate, exile sources said. The family believes Nhat left Vietnam for Thailand about three weeks before they heard he had gone missing, according to thevietnamese.org, an online magazine run by a group of Vietnamese activists and independent journalists.
Nhat previously served a two-year-imprisonment in 2014-2015 for his activism after being arrested in May 2013 and held in detention until his trial.
Human Rights Watch, or HRW, said Thai authorities have to investigate the case of Nhat, noting that he had come to Bangkok for the sole reason of applying for political asylum. The U.S.-based group called for the authorities to “consult with his family until he is found.”
HRW said Vietnam’s embassy in Bangkok may also be able to shed light on the blogger’s whereabouts.
“[T]he Thai authorities have an urgent obligation to seriously investigate this disappearance,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s Bangkok-based deputy Asia director, told RFA, noting that the group itself did not yet know what had happened to Nhat.
“If it turns out that Vietnam and local Thai officials are found to be involved in his disappearance, there needs to be serious consequences for everyone responsible,” he said.
The authoritarian Vietnamese government of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is at present holding more than 200 political prisoners, including rights advocates and bloggers deemed threats to national security, according to Nguyen Kim Binh of the California-based Vietnam Human Rights Network.
The government controls the news media, censors the internet, and restricts basic freedoms of expression.
On March 9th, the Hanoi People’s Court convicted Nhat for “abusing his position and authority while on duty” over alleged fraud involving state property while serving as bureau chief at a newspaper in Danang city between 2003-2004. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His lawyer says he will appeal.
“Radio Free Asia categorically condemns the unjust conviction of Truong Duy Nhat,” RFA President Bay Fang said. “This deplorable act by Vietnamese authorities delivers another blow against free speech and free expression. This miscarriage of justice only reinforces RFA’s mission to provide the people of Vietnam with uncensored perspectives, and accurate news and information.”