Vietnamese activist who protested toxic spill freed after 5 years

A Vietnamese man on Wednesday returned home after serving a five-year prison term for protesting a 2016 toxic waste spill, as lawyers for the victims of what is the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster continue to press for compensation.

Police arrested Nguyen Van Oai and dozens of others in January 2017 during a crackdown on people who demonstrated against the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group. The company owned a steel mill that discharged toxic chemicals into the ocean, devastating more than a hundred miles of coastline in four central provinces of Vietnam.

In September 2017, Oai got a five-year sentence for resisting officers on duty and disobeying a court verdict. After serving his time, he arrived at his home in the central province of Nghe An.

“I have mixed feelings, both happy and sad,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Wednesday.

“I am happy because I am free from that small prison, but I return to the large prison,” he said, referring to daily life in Vietnam.

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Oai said his five-year sentence was in injustice.

“Look at the two charges. ‘Disobedience of court verdict,’ and ‘resisting officers on official duty.’ I realize they did a lot on my case, from creating false files, forging signatures, to try to prove I did all the things they accused me of,” he said.

Oai said that at the time of his arrest, police thought he had played a pivotal role in organizing the protests against Formosa.

Oai’s mother, Tran Thi Lieu, told RFA that she was happy he was finally home.

“I was sad and worried when he was in prison, but I knew that he had sacrificed himself for a cause shared by everyone,” she said.

The five-year sentence was Oai’s second jail term. His first was from 2011 to 2015 after he was arrested for participating in protests for causes such as China’s rising influence in Vietnam, the need for stronger environmental protections, and support for a free press.

Taiwan lawsuit

In June 2019, three years after the Formosa disaster, nearly 8,000 people filed a lawsuit in Taiwan against Formosa with the help of environmental organizations in that country, as well as in Vietnam, the U.S., France and Canada.

Now the plaintiffs are asking Taiwan’s Supreme Court to reconsider a requirement that they get formal authorization to participate in the case.

The Formosa Monitoring Coalition, which has been assisting the affected Vietnamese, said during a news briefing in Taipei, Taiwan, on Monday the plaintiffs would face harassment by their single-party government if they were made to file paperwork at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Hanoi.

“We made this call because this can really put the plaintiffs in danger. It’s very likely, with around 90-95% certainty, that they could be harassed, arrested or even investigated. They could even be detained and imprisoned, and similar incidents have occurred in the past,” Peter Nguyen Van Hung, director of Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Immigrants Office in Taipei, and a member of the coalition, told RFA.

“So, we are calling on the Taiwan Supreme Court to have a lenient view on the authorization in order to give the plaintiffs, who are also the victims, the opportunity to keep their lawsuit valid and to have their case tried in Taiwan,” he said.

Taiwan courts have rejected the Vietnamese victims’ claims twice, but in December 2020, the Taiwan Supreme Court requested a review of the case.

But the court required that they notarize their authorizations for legal representation, as they are foreign persons in a case filed in Taiwan.

“That requirement is unfeasible, and I think politics has interfered with this requirement from the Taiwan Supreme Court,” Hung said.

Formosa in 2016 admitted that toxic chemicals discharged from their massive industrial plant caused one of largest environmental disasters in Vietnam’s history and offered $500 million in compensation after a Vietnamese government investigation into the spill determined that the release of toxic chemicals including cyanide from the plant caused considerable environmental damage.

Though the $500 million was for clean up and to support people along the coasts whose livelihoods were destroyed by the spill, critics say the money did not do enough for the victims and are seeking additional compensation through Taiwanese courts.

Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

Artmotion Asia

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