A noodle vendor in Vietnam who parodied one of the country’s most powerful ministers has been jailed for five-and-a-half years for anti-state propaganda.
Bui Tuan Lam became famous when he posted a video in 2021 mimicking the trademark gestures of the high-end London-based restaurateur Salt Bae.
A minister had been previously filmed eating a gold-leaf-covered steak in a Salt Bae video, causing a scandal.
The Vietnamese government is strictly intolerant of dissent.
The 39-year-old’s trial and sentencing in a Danang court took just one day. He must serve four years of probation after being released, his lawyer confirmed to the BBC.
In his video, Bui Tuan Lam spread green onions on his noodle soups in imitation of the Turkish celebrity chef – real name Nusret Gökçe – who often sprinkles salt on steak in a theatrical manner. Bui Tuan Lam’s wife and children
Days earlier, footage of Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security To Lam eating a $2,000 (£1,600) steak at the chef’s restaurant had caused an uproar online.
Many Vietnamese noted the incongruence of a top communist official eating a dish costing more than his monthly salary, and right after he had paid a visit to the grave of Karl Marx in London.
At the time the police interrogated Bui Tuan Lam and closed his noodle stall, which had become very popular for a few days. He was arrested last September and has been detained since then.
Bui Tuan Lam has been a political activist for nearly 10 years, which cost him his job in Ho Chi Minh City and forced him to sell noodles in Danang, his home city.
With his passport confiscated, he has been unable to leave Vietnam since 2014. But this is the first time the authorities have prosecuted him.
The indictment accused him of posting 19 videos on Facebook and 25 on YouTube which “affected the confidence of the people in the leadership of the state”.
While the famous Salt Bae parody was not mentioned, the embarrassment this caused the Vietnamese government is widely presumed to be the reason for his arrest.
“Even though the charges are about past Facebook posts, no one should be fooled,” says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
“The Ministry of Public Security is seeking vengeance against Bui Tuan Lam for daring to mock their steak-eating Minister To Lam. The green onion video that went viral, and delighted people in Vietnam, showed once again the creativity of a democracy movement that the authorities are using brute force and bogus convictions to try to extinguish.”
While in prison, Bui Tuan Lam was denied access to a lawyer until two weeks before his trial. His wife Le Thi Thanh Lam was not allowed to attend.
She told the BBC’s Vietnamese service that she and their three daughters have been allowed to see him only once since his arrest, and then for only 10 minutes.
“We could not say much but my husband sang a song with our daughters before saying goodbye. My husband was the one who told me about the trial, otherwise, I would not have known about it.”
Three days ago, Le Thi Thanh Lam got a call from a stranger who wanted to deliver a letter from her husband. He had written messages to her on scraps of paper and thrown them on the ground in hopes of someone picking them up and delivering them to her.
“In a letter, my husband wrote in January, he said that he would not plead guilty as he believed in what he was fighting for. He encouraged us to be brave and said it would be a miracle if she received those pieces of paper,” she told the BBC.
“No matter how many years the court will sentence him to, I completely object to it because my husband is not guilty of anything. That he is being imprisoned, for a day, a year, or 10 years, is a crime.”
There are currently at least 170 people in prison in Vietnam for expressing views unacceptable to the communist party or doing anything seen as a threat to the party’s monopoly on power.
Last month, dissident blogger Duong Van Thai, who was recognized as a refugee by the UN, was abducted in Thailand. It was widely believed to have been carried out by Vietnamese state agents, who were also behind similar abductions in other countries.
Climate activists Nguy Thi Khanh, Dang Dinh Bach, Mai Phan Loi, and Bach Hung Duong, who have been campaigning against Vietnam’s reliance on coal-fired power, were also convicted of tax evasion and jailed in recent months, a punishment rarely given to other alleged tax evaders.