Pham Doan Trang, the Vietnamese author, journalist and co-founder of Liberal Publishing House who was named the 2020 International Publishers Association (IPA) Prix Voltaire (freedom to publish) laureate has been arrested.

She was detained on 6 October for “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the Criminal Code, according to reports from Vietnam Human Rights Defenders and Reuters.  The maximum punishment for this ‘crime’ is 20 years in prison.

Trang is a prominent and outspoken journalist, author, activist, and blogger whose writing covers a wide range of topics including LGBT rights, women’s rights, environmental issues, the territorial conflict between Vietnam and China, police brutality, suppression of activists, and law and human rights.

Responding to her arrest, Phil Robertson, deputy chief of Southeast Asia Office of Human Rights Watch stated “Vietnam’s scorched earth response to political dissent is on display for all to see with the arrest of prominent blogger and author Pham Doan Trang. Despite suffering years of systemic government harassment, including severe physical attacks, she has remained faithful to her principles of peaceful advocacy for human rights and democracy.

“Her thoughtful approach to reforms, and demands for people’s real participation in their governance, are messages the Vietnam government should listen to and respect, not repress. Human Rights Watch strongly condemns Vietnam’s arrest of Pham Doan Trang. Every day she spends behind bars is a grave injustice that violates Vietnam’s international human rights commitments and brings dishonour to the government. Governments around the world and the UN must prioritize her case, speak out loudly and consistently on her behalf, and demand her immediate and unconditional release.”

In early 2019 Trang co-founded Liberal Publishing House (LPH) as an underground publisher working on books in the spirit of “liberal education and freedom of information”, LPH’s primary activities include publishing books free of government censorship, printing and distributing them through either sale or complimentary, public giveaways.  Its work includes both hard and electronic copies.

Trang’s arrest comes on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair at which she was scheduled to speak at the joint session about Vietnam presented by the fair and the IPA under the title Guerilla Publishing and International Support (Thursday 15 October at 13:30 CEST).  Her contribution has already been recorded and will be aired as planned.

Commenting on her arrest, Kristenn Einarsson, Chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee said: “This is terrible news but also, sadly, predictable. Pham Doan Trang and Liberal Publishing House have had to operate in hiding and on the run for years. Her work and courage are an inspiration to all publishers, and the international publishing community must support her and fight for real freedom to publish in Vietnam.”

Hugo Setzer, IPA President said: “Pham Doan Trang took these risks knowingly in defence of freedom of expression. I salute her bravery and her strength of conviction. We hear her call for election reform in Vietnam, but we must also denounce her arrest and urge the Vietnamese authorities to release her.”

Juergen Boos, the President of Frankfurter Buchmesse, said: “We are very concerned about Pham Doan Trang’s arrest, just before the start of the world’s largest Book Fair, the place where freedom of expression is celebrated. We are glad that the international publishing community will be hearing from Pham Doan Trang during the prerecorded session Guerilla Publishing and International Support.”

Trang left a moving and impassioned letter with the Vietnamese American activist William Nguyen, giving him instructions to release it in the event she was arrested.  In it she asks that her imprisonment be used to call for reforms of election laws in Vietnam, not her release.  ‘I would like you to link my imprisonment with new laws to change how Vietnam conducts elections and forms its National Assembly,” she writes. ‘Do not give me any priority over other prisoners of conscience.  Advocate for the others first, then me.’

She also adds: ‘Please take care of my mother.  Let her know that she and her daughter are not alone.  Make sure the police do not harm my mother, my brothers or my sisters-in-law; they have often been threatened by police.’