Vietnam’s Appeals Court on Friday upheld the jail sentences of a former army officer and soldier for attempting to form a pro-democracy organization that authorities say was planning a coup to overthrow the one-party communist government, according to an attorney for one of the defendants.
Retired Lt. Colonel Tran Anh Kim and ex-soldier Le Thanh Tung had been sentenced in December 2016 by a court in Thai Binh province to 13 years and 12 years in prison, respectively, for “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Tran Thu Nam, one of the lawyers representing Kim and Tung, spoke with RFA’s Vietnamese Service after Friday’s ruling, confirming that the court had rejected the pair’s plea of innocence and suggesting their legal team would try to bring the case before Vietnam’s Supreme Court.
“[Defense] lawyers at the trial said the defendants Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung were not guilty, proposing that the sentence be lifted, but the court did not accept the proposal or the defendants’ appeals and upheld the verdict of the first instance,” he said.
Nam said that because the judicial process in Vietnam is based on only two levels of trial, the sentences become effective immediately, but added that the defendants have the right to file a petition to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court contests the original ruling, the sentence will be reviewed.
Nam noted, however, that cases related to national security are extremely difficult to overturn, and that none had ever been reviewed by the Supreme Court after being upheld by the Appeals Court.
The men are accused of preparing to launch the “National Force to Launch the Democracy Flag” group, an organization the authorities claim was an attempt to link up dissatisfied soldiers and former members of the ousted South Vietnamese military in an effort to foment a revolution.
They claim innocence because they had only planned to launch the association, but hadn’t officially organized, and also call the charges against them a violation of the right to freedom of speech and association in Vietnam.
During their short trial in December, the defendants told the court that the group is simply an online association and the members don’t even know one another. The group only had six members and the other four are online members who cannot be identified.
Kim, who served in the Vietnam War, has become one of Vietnam’s most persistent dissidents and had been freed from prison eight months ago after serving a five-and-a-half-year prison term on a similar charge under Article 79 of the country’s penal code.
Le Thanh Tung, an ex-soldier and freelance journalist, was sentenced in August 2012 by a Hanoi court under Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state” for his association with Bloc 8406—a banned coalition of political groups advocating democratic reform in the one-party Communist state.
Le was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released in June.
Article 79 and 88 of the penal code are among the broadly-worded national security laws that rights groups and Western governments say Vietnam uses to persecute dissidents.
Kim, who was arrested in September, has long advocated for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.
He was the awarded a Hellman/Hammett grant by the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch in 2009 for his pro-democracy and human rights activities, including circulating petitions protesting injustice and corruption in the Vietnamese Communist Party.
In 2006, Kim became known as a dissident writer, having joined Bloc 8406. He was jailed several timed for his activities and connections to the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.