Nguyen Van Hoa, a Vietnamese blogger who was arrested for reporting on a 2016 environmental disaster, was sentenced this week (Nov. 27) to seven years in prison for “propaganda against the state” in Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province.

He joins Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison earlier this year.

The disaster in question was created by an incident at a steel plant owned by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, a subsidiary of Taiwan's Formosa Plastics. The Vietnamese labor ministry estimated that over 250,000 Vietnamese citizens were affected by the incident, which dirtied over 200 kilometers of coastline with cyanide and other bi-products of steel production. Formosa was also accused of burying waste on farms and in public parks. The local environment is not expected to recover for a decade, and the disaster set of a cascade of anti-government protests, some of the largest in Vietnam in decades, leading to a government crackdown of over 500 arrests.

Human rights groups felt that Taiwan could have helped protect those affected by the disaster. Andrea Giorgetta, director of Asia desk of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) told The News Lens, “Taiwan should use its economic leverage on Hanoi and ensure its New Southbound Policy encompasses a human rights dimension. All economic agreements signed as part of this policy should include due diligence and human right impact assessments to help prevent rights abuses, including violations of civil and political rights.”

Blame ultimately rests on the Vietnamese justice system. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division said in an email, “Vietnam should compel Formosa to open their factory and their records to an independent and impartial investigation that will assess whether this chemical dumping was a deliberate act and if so, who was responsible, or whether it was negligence, in which case the company must ensure appropriate next steps against those staff who failed in their duties.

“Many people in Vietnam also suspect that corrupt government officials were complicit in the lack of oversight, at best, or regulatory malfeasance and any role of corruption needs to be exposed," Robertson said. There is clear overlap between what happened here and the violations of economic, social and cultural rights that the people of these communities are now facing. Of course, cracking down and imprisoning those who spread the news is also a clear violation of rights and Nguyen Van Hoa's conviction should be quashed and he should be released immediately.”

One year after the incident, Ha Tinh Steel president Chen Yuan-cheng (陳源成) stepped down as general manager but is still president and chairman of the company. Ha Tinh Steel has had a rocky time restarting the plant, with an explosion occurring in May of 2017. Formosa paid US$500 million in fines to the government, and fishers were reportedly each given US$785 in compensation.

A representative from Formosa Plastics declined to comment on the sentencing, adding, “It was the Vietnamese government that sentenced him, not us.”

Editor: David Green