A lawyer representing two Vietnamese activists set to face trial for crimes against the state urged authorities Wednesday to re-examine the charges against them, as a human rights group called for their release and an investigation into reports they had been abused in prison.
Nguyen Phuong Uyen, 21, and Dinh Nguyen Kha, 25, were arrested in October last year for handing out anti-government leaflets during a protest against China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea and are scheduled to be tried in the People’s Court of Long An province on Thursday.
Both Uyen and Kha have been charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the penal code, while Kha faces an additional charge of “terrorism” under Article 84 in a separate case.
On Wednesday, lawyer Nguyen Thanh Luong, who represents Uyen, sent a petition to the Long An provincial prosecutor’s office and people’s court requesting that the authorities reconsider the indictment against the defendants.
“According to Article 4 of the constitution, the Vietnamese Communist Party is the ruling party, but the party itself is not the state… Article 88 of the penal code has nothing to do with the communist party,” Luong told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“The party is only a political party and each member is a citizen of the socialist republic of Vietnam. Therefore, blaspheming the party does not mean blaspheming the state.”
He said that using Article 88 to charge those for speaking out against the communist party was not only unfair to the defendants, but also “sends the wrong message to the public.”
The lawyer also asked the authorities to consider that Uyen had taken part in a protest against China as a means to “express her love for her country.”
“The relevant offices of justice should consider this instead of prosecuting her on criminal charges.”
According to state media, Uyen and Kha distributed leaflets signed by overseas opposition group the Patriotic Youth League which accused Vietnam’s communist party of allowing China to take over the country by occupying its islands and exploiting its natural resources.
The Patriotic Youth League—a group of students, artists, and young professionals who promote social justice and human rights in Vietnam and which is banned in the country—had in the leaflets urged people “to take to the streets” against the communist party, which it said was controlled by the Chinese.
Authorities have accused Uyen and Kha of contacting Nguyen Thien Thanh—a Patriotic Youth League member based in Thailand—via Facebook in April or May last year.
They say Thanh convinced the two to join the “anti-state reactionary group” and sent files containing the wording used in the leaflets, instructing them to paste the leaflets in public areas.
Uyen, a student at the Ho Chi Minh University of Food Industry from Ham Thuan Bac district in Binh Thuan province, was taken into custody by authorities on Oct. 14, 2012 in Ho Chi Minh City, and held at a local police station after distributing the leaflets.
Uyen’s relatives were notified of her arrest eight days later—after police had already transferred her to authorities in Long An.
On Oct. 23, Long An police acknowledged that Uyen had been charged with “conducting propaganda against the state.” They said she had been officially arrested on Oct. 19, leaving five days unaccounted for.
Uyen’s mother Nguyen Thi Nhung told RFA’s Vietnamese Service last month that during a 20-minute prison visit on April 26 she learned that her daughter had suffered a seizure and other health problems, and had also been subjected to a brutal beating by a fellow inmate.
“I could see many bruises on my daughter’s body—on her neck, chest, and arms,” Nhung said at the time.
“She said she was beaten, attacked, and kicked until she fainted,” adding that an older female inmate with a criminal record who Uyen did not know had assaulted her and that authorities had only intervened and taken her to the emergency room after she passed out from the beating.
Dinh Nguyen Kha, a student at the Long An University of Economics and Industry from Tan An city, was accused by police of dropping 2,000 anti-government leaflets at the An Suong overpass in Ho Chi Minh City on Oct. 10, 2012 with the help of Uyen.
Police told state media that he had also previously conducted experiments with making explosives, without providing further details.
Kha was arrested on Oct. 11 but, according to a copy of his indictment, he had already been convicted and sentenced on Sept. 29 by the People’s Court of Tan An city to two years in prison for “intentionally causing injuries [to others].”
Kha’s mother, Nguyen Thi Kim Lien, in April called on authorities to re-examine her son’s case, saying that an initial indictment sent from the prosecutor’s office to the court had said there was not enough evidence to charge him with terrorism.
Kha’s brother, Dinh Nhat Uy, said that when police had come to the family home to search for evidence, they couldn’t find anything, so they took his computer, camera, and printer instead.
Uy said he was subjected to 10 days in a row of interrogation before police decided not to charge him, but said he is still harassed on a weekly basis.
Call for release
The case of Uyen and Kha drew international condemnation ahead of Thursday’s trial, with New York-based Human Rights Watch calling on Vietnamese authorities to drop charges against the two for their nonviolent protest.
“Putting people on trial for distributing leaflets critical of the government is ridiculous and shows the insecurity of the Vietnamese government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Writing things that do not please the government is only a crime in a dictatorship.”
Human Rights Watch also noted that given Kha’s conviction in late September, it was unclear why he would have still been free to drop leaflets on Oct. 10.
The group said it had no information about the explosives or terrorism charges against Kha, but said it opposes criminal charges for dropping leaflets, which it termed “an act of peaceful expression.”
Adams called on Vietnamese authorities to allow lawyers and doctors “unrestricted and confidential access” to Uyen and Kha to discuss charges against them and to investigate claims of mistreatment.
He also condemned Vietnam for “using politically controlled courts to convict critics of the government.”
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.