“Freedom for Vietnam!” shouted noodle peddler and activist Bui Tuan Lam, as police dragged him away for “insulting” the country’s leaders.
The arresting officers first covered his mouth with their hands in an effort to silence him. Then they pushed him into a car “and gagged him with a dirty towel that I use to wipe up the noodle tables,” said Le Than Lam, Bui Tuan Lam’s wife who described the scene of her husband’s arrest to RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Wednesday at their home and restaurant in Danang, in the country’s central region.
Bui Tuan Lam had achieved some notoriety last year when he appeared in a video that went viral showing him imitating the Turkish chef known as Salt Bae.
The video was widely seen as a mockery of a senior Vietnamese government official who was caught on film being hand fed one of Salt Bae’s gold-encrusted steaks — by the chef himself — at a cost of 1,450 pounds (U.S. $1,975). Critics wondered how the official could afford the extravagant meal on a monthly salary of $660.
Bui Tuan Lam, who called himself “Onion Leaf Bae” in the video, was charged for violating Article 117 of the country’s Penal Code, which prohibits “creating, storing, and disseminating materials and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” state media reported.
Prior to his arrest, hundreds of officers surrounded the family home and demanded entry, Le Thanh Lam told RFA.
“It happened at about 7 p.m. when all of our family members were at home. At first, they pulled at the door trying to gain entry. We said that they had to show us a search warrant,” she said.
“They said they would carry out a search first and provide us with the warrant later, but we refused to let them in. They assaulted Lam’s younger brothers, Minh and Tuan, grabbing their necks, arms and legs, then arrested them both and escorted them to the police station,” she said.
After searching the house, the police confiscated three T-shirts printed with the message, “Human rights should be respected in Vietnam,” said Le Thanh Lam.
The officers also destroyed three security cameras but did not acknowledge doing so in the summary of their search, she said.
During the search, her husband began to peacefully defy the police.
“They did not allow him to talk with others. They took him inside but he shouted loudly ‘Freedom for Vietnam!’ and sang songs” in protest, she said.
After the search they dragged him away as he continued to shout. So they shoved him into the car and gagged him, Le Thanh Lam said.
Bui Tuan Lam’s mockery of a government official should not be considered a crime, Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at New York-based Human Rights Watch told RFA.
“Vietnamese authorities regularly define any comment they don’t like as ‘propaganda against the state’, making Vietnam one of the most thin-skinned governments in the region when it comes to public criticism,” Robertson said.
“In this case, they are locking up a street-side noodle seller who had the audacity to ridicule the minister of public security for buying a U.S. $2,000 steak on an overseas trip.”
Mockery is a legitimate form of expression, Robertson said.
“Vietnam should abolish the rights-abusing Article 117 of the Penal Code, and immediately free Bui Tuan Lam and others locked up for simply expressing views the communist party dislikes,” he said.
Authorities on Thursday used the same article to justify the arrest of music lecturer Dang Dang Phuoc of Dak Lak Province, south of Danang, who discussed Bui Than Lam’s arrest on Facebook.
“Phuoc was arrested at around 6 a.m. while doing morning exercises near his home. The police took him to his home and searched his house,” a close friend of Phuoc, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA.
“Ha, Phuoc’s wife, rang me at 6:10 a.m. and told me about the arrest. I came right away. The police searched the house for many hours.” Phuoc’s friend said.
RFA contacted the Dak Lak Provincial Police to verify Phuoc’s arrest but the police officer who answered refused to provide information over the phone.
“Since 2019, Dang Dang Phuoc has taken advantage of the Facebook platform to compile and publish many stories and video clips with distorted content against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” state media quoted Dak Lak police as saying.
Phuoc, 59, is a music lecturer at Dak Lak Education College who has about 6,000 followers on his Facebook page, where he often discusses social issues.
His most recent post criticized the Danang police for their actions during Wednesday’s arrest of Bui Tuan Lam.
Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.