Vietnam detains activist hours after human rights meeting with U.S.

HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam has arrested a prominent blogger and dissident for “anti-state activities” hours after its government held annual talks on human rights with the United States, which said it was concerned about freedom of expression.

Pham Doan Trang, a writer who has published widely on human rights and alleged police brutality, was arrested late on Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City, according to the country’s public security ministry, for “making, storing, disseminating or propagandising information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State”.

Despite sweeping economic reform and increasing openness to social change, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party tolerates little criticism and has stepped up its crackdown on activists ahead of a key party congress in January next year.

Trang’s arrest came hours after Tuesday’s annual U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue concluded.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said it was concerned by reports of Trang’s detention, which “could impact freedom of expression”.

“We urge the Vietnamese government to ensure its actions and laws are consistent with Vietnam’s international obligations and commitments,” spokeswoman Rachael Chen said.

Trang was in 2014 among several activists apprehended by the authorities ahead of a meeting with former U.S. President Barack Obama during his landmark visit to Vietnam.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemned Tuesday’s arrest and demanded her immediate release.

A source with direct knowledge said she had been anticipating issues with the authorities just days before she was detained.

Trang had also shared a letter titled “just in case I am imprisoned” dated May 2019, outlining democratic goals she strived to achieve. She also asked that she be allowed to have her guitar in jail.

“I had a long chat with her on Sunday and she seemed very nervous,” the source, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the case, told Reuters.

“When she arrived for our meeting she came carrying her large guitar on her back, explaining she felt they wouldn’t detain her if she was carrying that”.

Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Martin Petty