Rights groups urge Thailand not to extradite Vietnamese activist, saying he's at risk if sent home

BANGKOK (AP) — Human rights groups urged Thailand on Thursday not to extradite a Vietnamese activist detained in Bangkok, saying he could be at risk if handed back to Vietnam.

Y Quynh Bdap, who had United Nations refugee status in Thailand, was picked up by local police on Tuesday, the day after he had met with Canadian Embassy officials as he pursued asylum there, according to the Peace Rights Foundation, a Thai organization that had been in contact with him.

The co-founder of the Montagnards Stand for Justice group was convicted in absentia in Vietnam in January on allegations that he was involved in organizing anti-government riots in Vietnam's central highland province of Dak Lak last June.

Vietnamese authorities had been making inquiries in Thailand about him, with Thailand’s assistance, which sent him into hiding six months ago, Bdap said before his arrest in a video statement.

In the June 7 video, provided to The Associated Press by Kannavee Suebsang, a Thai opposition lawmaker who is active in human rights issues, Bdap said he had “absolutely nothing to do with that violent incident.”

“I am a human rights activist fighting for religious freedom and advocating for people's rights,” said the 32-year-old Bdap, who fled to Thailand in 2018.

“My activities are peaceful, consisting only of collecting and writing reports on human rights violations in Vietnam.”

Thai immigration authorities told the AP they would look into the case, but then never provided any information or comment.

Bdap is now being held in a Bangkok prison awaiting an extradition hearing, which could take about a week, according to Human Rights Watch.

UNHCR, the U.N. agency for refugees, said that it couldn't comment on individual cases, but that it “actively engages” with Thailand's government to ensure fundamental international obligations are honored, including not forcibly returning refugees to a country where they are likely to be subject to persecution.

“States have the primary responsibility to provide protection and safety to persons on their territory, including refugees and asylum-seekers and people whose lives could be at risk if they were returned,” spokesperson Liana Bianchi said.

Calls to the Vietnamese Embassy in Thailand went unanswered.

Vietnam has long been criticized by rights groups and others for its treatment of the country's Montagnard minority, a term loosely used to refer to many predominantly Christian ethnic groups that live in the central highlands and neighboring Cambodia.

Human Rights Watch has said many have been driven to seek asylum in Cambodia and Thailand as Vietnamese authorities have subjected their communities to intimidation, arbitrary arrests and mistreatment in custody.

“Y Quynh Bdap would be at real risk if returned to Vietnam," said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

"Thai authorities should immediately release this prominent religious freedom advocate and refugee. Returning him to Vietnam would be a violation of Thailand’s obligations under Thai and international law.”

The organization has been critical of Thailand for its record on sending home dissidents from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China to uncertain fates, in what they said in a recent report was a quid-pro-quo form of transnational repression, in which those countries sent home dissidents wanted by Thailand.

The country has ratified the International Convention for Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which took effect Thursday, but it's unclear whether Bdap's case will fall under its purview.

“Cooperation between states in locating persecuted opposition groups is a concerning situation for human rights,” Kannavee said.

He cited examples of Thai activists turning up dead in Laos and Cambodian opposition groups being rounded up in Thailand.

“This is happening all over,” Kannaveee said.

“Transnational repression really does happen and the exchanges of these dissidents happens regularly, whether in secret or in full view of the public.”

Bdap was convicted in January on terrorism charges and sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for his alleged involvement in the Dak Lak riots, at a time when he was in Thailand.

Overall, about 100 people were tried for alleged involvement in the violent riots at two district government offices in which nine people were killed, including four police officers and two government officials. Fifty-three were convicted on charges of “terrorism against the people's government,” state-run Vietnam News reported.

Days after the verdicts, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang rejected criticism that Vietnam had used the trial as an opportunity to crack down on ethnic minorities, saying the government needed to “strictly deal with terrorism according to international law,” the Vietnam News reported.

“All ethnicities living in a territory of Vietnam are equal,” she said.

Unlike Uyghur refugees indefinitely detained by Thai authorities, Bdap faces a more credible threat of extradition since he has been criminally convicted in his homeland, Peace Rights Foundation said.

In the video entreaty Bdap recorded before being apprehended, he pleaded for the “help of the United Nations, NGOs, and governments of democratic countries.”

“Please protect me,” he said.