Three bloggers in Vietnam are facing charges of conducting propaganda against the one-party communist state, official media said over the weekend, amid indications they will be thrown in jail again.
Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai, and Ta Phong Tan will be prosecuted for material they posted between Sept. 2007 and Oct. 2010 on the "Free Journalists Club" website they co-founded.
The articles, which covered politically sensitive topics including workers’ strikes, dissident trials, and anti-China protests, had "distorted and denigrated the party and state," the Thanh Nien newspaper reported Sunday.
The three will be charged under Article 88 of the penal code and could face up to 20 years in prison.
They are currently in custody, having suffered harassment by authorities since they founded the group. Founding manager Nguyen Van Hai has been held since April 2008.
Nguyen Van Hai’s lawyer, Nguyen Quoc Dat, said he was not optimistic about battling the charges.
“I intend to argue for an acquittal for [him], but the chances are slim,” Dat said Monday.
“Regardless, I will do my best to the utmost of my ability and with my whole sense of responsibility. I will raise an argument with all circumstances to reject the prosecution’s accusation, but in reality I cannot tell what the result of the verdict will be,” he said.
“So based on my experience I can only say that the chances for an acquittal are low.”
The case has been transferred to the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court, state media reported Saturday, signaling a court session was imminent. But no date has been set, Dat said.
“I went to the court this morning along with Dzung, [Van Hai’s] son. The court secretary said the session is occurring in the coming days but there’s no exact time or day. He said he would inform the family and lawyer in advance for our preparation when there is an exact date and time.”
Nguyen Van Hai, known by his pen name Dieu Cay, was detained following his participation in anti-China protests ahead of the Beijing Olympics and later prosecuted on allegedly trumped-up tax evasion charges.
He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and scheduled for release in Oct. 2010.
But on the day of his scheduled release, Nguyen Van Hai’s family woke up to a pre-dawn police raid on their home. Police beat his wife and told neighbors he was facing new charges.
Nguyen Van Hai had been held incommunicado until he met with lawyers recently, rights groups said.
“[He] has been detained incommunicado for the past 17 months in gross violation of domestic and international law, and he should never have been arrested in the first place. A trial under these conditions would be nothing other than a parody of justice,” Vo Van Ai, president of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, said in a statement Monday.
“Vietnam must respect its international commitments and call off this mockery of justice before it is too late,” he said.
The Thanh Nien newspaper said Nguyen Van Hai is also accused of attending a training course in Thailand aimed at overthrowing the Vietnamese government, along with Phan Thanh Hai.
Phan Thanh Hai, 43, blogged under the pen name Anh Ba Saigon about issues including territorial disputes with China, environmentally sensitive bauxite projects, a corruption scandal surrounding the state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin, and state harassment of dissidents.
He was arrested in October 2010.
The third blogger in the case, Ta Phong Tan, 44, a former policewoman and member of Vietnam’s ruling communist party before she became a freelance journalist, blogged about abuses in Vietnam’s legal system.
Authorities detained her in September 2011.
Calls for release
The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights called on Vietnamese authorities to release the bloggers, saying they are being detained “for the legitimate expression of their peaceful opinions.”
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which had given awards to each of the three bloggers, also called for their immediate release in a statement Monday.
“Locking up bloggers does nothing to suppress or solve the controversies they reported. The authorities have not just violated the rights of these authors, but of their readers as well,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia said.
Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnam of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent that includes detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.
France-based Reporters Without Borders, which lists Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet,” says at least three journalists and 17 bloggers are currently in jail in the one-party state.
In Vietnam, blog platform hosts are required to regularly provide the government with information about the activities of their clients, and news outlets are overseen by communist party censors who hold weekly meetings with senior editors to criticize transgressions and guide coverage.
Earlier this month, Vietnam’s information ministry released new draft regulations that, if adopted, will require users to use their real names when posting online and will hold bloggers personally liable for all the published content on their blogs.
Reported by Chan Nhu for RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.