A noodle vendor in Vietnam who came under the scanner for mocking a senior government minister by parodying celebrity chef “Salt Bae”, has been sentenced to five-and-a-half years in jail for acting “against the state”.
Bui Tuan Lam, 39, became a viral sensation in 2021 after a video showed him imitating Turkish celebrity chef Nusret Gökçe, popularly known as Salt Bae.
Gökçe became a household name and inspired thousands of Internet memes after a video of him seasoning meat with elan went viral.
The costly meal by the minister raised eyebrows as the southeast Asian country has a huge population under the poverty line as it is still recovering from decades of war.
Vietnam has 4.4 per cent of its people living below the poverty line, according to a 2021 report by the Asian Development Bank.
Tuan Lam described himself as “Green Onion Bae” in a Facebook post and said he made the satirical video clip for fun. He said it was also to advertise his beef noodle shop.
“More customers have been coming since I posted it,” Tuan Lam told Reuters. He said it was not clear whether the police summons were because of his video.
Tuan Lam has also publicly advocated for democracy in Vietnam. Human rights groups said the street vendor was known for sharing his opinions on human rights on Youtube and Facebook.
According to the BBC, he has been a political activist for nearly a decade. It cost him his job in Ho Chi Minh City. His passport is now confiscated and he has been unable to leave Vietnam since 2014, a BBC report said.
The authorities accused him of posting content that “affected the confidence of the people in the leadership of the state”, according to the report.
Rights groups denounced the conviction and pre-trial detention of Tuan Lam as the latest in the government’s wide-ranging attempts to silence voices critical of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party.
Tuan Lam was arrested in September last year on charges of anti-state propaganda and has remained in detention since.
On Thursday, he was convicted by a court after a one-day trial found him guilty of anti-state propaganda.
The Danang Police Department said he was found guilty of "making, storing, distributing, or disseminating information, documents, and items against the state".
Ahead of his trial, Amnesty International urged the Vietnamese authorities to “drop trumped-up charges” against Tuan Lam and immediately release him.
“The authorities have hounded him for his posts and videos, showing the length that Vietnamese authorities can go to deny people the enjoyment of their right to freedom of expression, no matter how benign, satirical or light-hearted. Satire is not a crime. This travesty of justice must end,” it said.
“This case is emblematic of the beleaguered state of human rights in Vietnam, where even the mildest satirical jab can potentially result in blowback from authorities. The international community should demand that Vietnamese authorities end their relentless assault on people’s basic human rights.”
Bộ trưởng Bộ Công an Việt Nam Tô Lâm được Salt Bae chế biến và đút cho ăn món bò dát vàng trị giá lên đến 45 triệu đồng/phần trong một nhà hàng của ông này ở Luân Đôn. Cùng bàn với ông Tô Lâm là Chánh văn phòng Bộ Công an Tô Ân Xô. pic.twitter.com/hGZZqGbJZr
— Duy Bình (@DuyBnh61157516) November 5, 2021
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the Vietnamese authorities “deem just about anything as ‘propaganda against the state’ to crack down on activists and dissidents”.
“The Vietnamese government should abolish rights-abusing article 117 of the penal code and stop prosecuting Bui Tuan Lam and others for criticizing the Vietnamese Communist Party,” he added.
His treatment has sparked criticism of the one-party rule known for its intolerance of dissent.