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Writer jailed in Vietnam to be recognized with international award

FILE - Vietnamese journalist and blogger Pham Doan Trang is seen in an undated video grab. (VOA Vietnamese)
FILE - Vietnamese journalist and blogger Pham Doan Trang is seen in an undated video grab. (VOA Vietnamese)

A Vietnamese writer and journalist serving a nine-year prison sentence for her work has been recognized with an international literary award.

The rights group PEN America has announced that Pham Doan Trang will receive its 2024 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. The honor is bestowed each year to a writer imprisoned for his or her work.

Trang is known in Vietnam for her blog and books about civil liberties. She started a blog in 2006 as a way to create space for independent debate. Since then, the writer has started online magazines, opened a publishing house, and authored books on politics, human rights, and the Vietnamese legal system.

Her books include Non-Violent Resistance, Politics for the Common People, A Handbook for Freedom Fighters, and Politics of a Police State.

The writing brought Trang to the attention of Vietnamese authorities. Her books have been confiscated and people who buy or own copies risk charges of spreading anti-state propaganda, according to PEN.

In 2020, Vietnam arrested Trang on accusations of spreading “anti-state propaganda,” and in a one-day trial in 2021, a court sentenced her to nine years in prison.

The writer is serving her sentence in a remote prison 900 miles from her hometown, which means family can visit only occasionally.

“Trang has galvanized the Vietnamese people through her writings on democracy, human rights, environmental degradation, and women’s empowerment. The Vietnamese government has persecuted and jailed Trang in an effort to still her voice,” Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, said in a statement.

“She has sacrificed her health and freedom in the pursuit of justice. Despite the government’s crackdown on dissent and activism, her powerful words continue to inspire people across Vietnam and throughout the world.”

PEN America has said that Trang’s imprisonment contradicts international human rights law and violates her right to free expression.

Neither Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor its embassy in Washington responded to VOA’s comment inquiries.

Trang is one of 19 journalists imprisoned for their work in Vietnam, making the country one of the leading jailers of media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

One of Trang’s lawyers will receive the award on behalf of the writer at a gala in New York in May, along with a friend of the writer, says PEN.

The lawyer, Dang Dinh Manh, said that Trang, “completely deserves all the honors” that are recognizing her work and the sacrifice she has made to speak up.

“As a defense lawyer for Trang, I understand her commitment to fighting for universal values, along with the very high price she had to make tradeoffs: her health, her youth, her freedom,” Manh told VOA.

The lawyer, who fled Vietnam for the U.S. because of harassment related to his legal work, added, “She completely deserves all the honors.”

The award sends a message to the Vietnamese government that “the suppression of people's freedom is not welcomed, and is even condemned everywhere,” said Manh.

Trang’s friend Quynh-Vi Tran will also travel to New York for the award ceremony.

“PEN America had given these awards to people that they believe are writers who inspire and who use their writings to inspire others to do better things in society,” Tran, who lives in Taiwan, told VOA.

Tran, who is co-founder and executive director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, expressed thanks to PEN for “advocating for Trang's freedom” and raising awareness of the challenges to free expression in Vietnam.

“Vietnam should understand and should follow the legal standard of human rights in the world. Because Vietnam is a member of the Human Rights Council, they cannot say they have a different definition for human rights than the rest of the world. Right?” Tran said.

PEN America has called for Trang’s release from prison and the repeal of the law under which Trang is imprisoned, among other laws that infringe on free expression.

Previous PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write winners include Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi and Ukrainian freelance journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko.

This article originated in VOA’s Vietnamese Service.