Days after Biden’s visit, Vietnam detains energy expert

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam detained an energy expert a few days after U.S. President Joe Biden visited and announced multiple joint initiatives including on protecting human rights, the 88 Project charity said on Wednesday.

Hanoi police took Ngo Thi To Nhien, Executive Director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (VIET), an independent think tank focused on green energy policy, into custody on Sept. 15, the charity said in a statement.

The authorities have made no announcement about the detention and no local media has reported it. The government did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed to Reuters that Nhien had been detained.

Another five energy and climate experts are currently detained in Vietnam, Project 88 said, as the Communist-ruled country has been negotiating with international partners to speed up policies to tackle climate change.

At the time of her detention, Nhien was cooperating with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Vietnam office on implementing the Just Energy Transition Partnership, a $15.5 billion pledge by G7 and other countries to help Vietnam reduce its use of coal, the charity and the source said.

UNDP Vietnam was not immediately available for a comment.

Biden left Vietnam on Sept. 11 after having upgraded diplomatic relations and sealed multiple deals with Hanoi’s leaders, drawing criticism from human rights organisations who accused him of sidelining issues of human rights.

The White House fact sheet about the visit weighed in at over 2,600 words, including 112 words on human rights. It mentioned “enhanced commitment to meaningful dialogue” on promoting and protecting human rights, without elaborating.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that as part of the agreement, two detained rights activists were released and another two who had been barred from leaving Vietnam would be allowed to relocate to the United States.

Before Biden’s visit, Vietnam was holding at least 159 political prisoners and detaining 22 others, Human Rights Watch said earlier this month.

“Nhien’s detention demonstrates that the Vietnamese government is using political prisoners as bargaining chips in diplomatic negotiations,” said Project 88 co-director Ben Swanton.

The U.S. embassy in Hanoi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio)