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Vietnam Issues Warrant for Environmental Activist

Environmental activist Bach Hong Quyen
Environmental activist Bach Hong Quyen

Police in a Vietnamese province where a toxic spill caused a 100-ton fish kill last year have issued a rare "wanted" warrant for influential environmental activist Bach Hong Quyen.

On Friday, a day after police attempted to serve the warrant to his wife at the couple's home in Ha Tinh province, Vietnamese media reported authorities had launched a nationwide manhunt for the 28-year-old activist, who was accused of "disturbing public order" through his organization of an April 3 environmental protest.

Blogger Nguyen Lan Thang posted on Facebook that "the ongoing manhunt is the Ha Tinh police's revenge of Quyen's activities aiming at protecting the people in the central area in the Formosa disaster." He then cautioned the government that it would not be easy to find or arrest Quyen because "there are dozens of organizations, hundreds of social activists and millions of people who will protect him."

Arrest order for environmental activist Bach Hong Quyen.
Arrest order for environmental activist Bach Hong Quyen.

Bui Huong Giang, Quyen's wife, told the VOA Vietnamese service that police on Thursday tried to serve the warrant at the couple's house, Quyen's parents' house and at another location "in the countryside." She recorded the police telling her that it was her "responsibility" as Quyen's wife to "persuade him to report to the police and confess." She posted the unverified recording to Facebook.

Home watched

Giang also told VOA that their home had been under surveillance since April 3. A protest that day drew 2,000 people angry at the government's response to the April 2016 toxic spill from Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation and police harassment of protest organizers, including Quyen, the day before.

Giang told VOA that "police are tracking" her husband throughout Vietnam, although she said she did not know his whereabouts.

The police in Ha Tinh province refused to speak with VOA on the telephone about the warrant.

Residents of Ha Tinh and three other central coast provinces are still recovering from the April 6, 2016, fish kill caused by a discharge from Formosa Ha Tinh Steel. The environmental and economic disaster both embarrassed and worried the government as images of piles of dead fish on beaches went viral, fishing communities lost income, and thousands of protesters demonstrated at the plant and in cities throughout Vietnam.

The Ha Tinh fish kill is widely seen throughout Vietnam as having raised environmental awareness and increased activism. The movement saw early success when the Taiwanese-owned steel company accepted full responsibility for the fish kill and pledged to pay $500 million in damages for dumping wastewater laden with phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxide into the sea.

FILE - The Formosa steel factory is seen in Vietnam's central Ha Tinh province.
FILE - The Formosa steel factory is seen in Vietnam's central Ha Tinh province.

Still sensitive

The event remains a politically touchy topic that Vietnam's government has tried to play down. The steel plant has become, for many citizens, a symbol of China's economic influence in Vietnam, even as the two countries face off over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

But protesters and activists have refused to let the government ignore the incident's aftermath, and it was in that spirit that Quyen and others met for coffee April 2 to discuss the next day's march.

Quyen told VOA on April 3 that the group spotted plainclothes officers in the cafe. As the activists prepared to leave, police roughed them up, and then they fired on a crowd that gathered. Although nobody was shot, Quyen told VOA at least nine people were injured.

"My husband is innocent," Giang told VOA on Thursday. "Anything he has done is legal and correct, because what he has done is help local people in the village raise their voice about the pollution caused by Formosa."

An Ton contributed to this report which originated on the VOA Vietnamese Service.