Authorities in Vietnam arrested two bloggers on charges of publishing anti-state information, police said Tuesday, signaling a renewed crackdown on online dissent despite the early release last month of three political dissidents from prison.
Nguyen Huu Vinh, 58, who is known by his online name Anh Ba Sam, was arrested at his home in the capital Hanoi on Monday for “posting false information about the state on the Internet,” according to the state-run Thanh Nien newspaper.
Known for founding the political Basam blog, Vinh will be investigated for allegedly “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens,” the report said, quoting a statement from police under the Ministry of Public Security.
Police also arrested “his associate” 34-year-old Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy at her residence in the capital for the same offense, saying that the duo had posted articles “that had the potential to tarnish the state apparatus’ prestige.”
Thanh Nien said that Vinh and Thuy had been accused of violating Article 258 of Vietnam’s Penal Code and could face jail terms of up to seven years if convicted.
Communist Vietnam, where all media is state-run, does not tolerate dissent and has been using vague charges to detain and jail dozens of writers and bloggers over the last two years.
Vinh was held even though his father is a former minister and Communist Party Central Committee member, fellow bloggers said, noting that his sources were also highly placed.
“He was arrested because he is an outspoken critic of the government,” one blogger said.
Additionally, he said, Basam has traditionally been a forum for demonstrators staging anti-Chinese protests over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and Vinh’s arrest came just after Beijing stationed an oil rig in waters claimed by both countries over the weekend.
Huynh Ngoc Chenh, another blogger, said that Vinh “and those who have been arrested before him all have sources that include high-ranking officials within the party,” making him a threat to the country’s leadership.
Blogger Me Nam said that rumors had spread within Vietnam’s blogging community for more than a month that Vinh would be arrested, adding that she was surprised police had only moved against him so recently.
Other bloggers told RFA that they believe Vinh was involved in two other well-known political blogs, Chep Su Viet and Dien Dan Xa Hoi Dan Su, both of which were shut down by authorities.
Vinh, who is a former policeman, originally founded Basam in 2007 as a means to store articles for his own reference, but the site soon became a platform for activists to share blog posts and other content critical of the government.
His profile was raised as the son of a former labor minister, top ruling party member, and ambassador to the former Soviet Union, a key ally of Vietnam.
Dinh Thi Ngoc Thu, the U.S.-based managing editor for Basam, told RFA that Vinh had not been involved in the site’s operation for several years.
In a Tuesday posting on the blog, which has been repeatedly targeted by hackers with suspected links to Vietnam’s government over the last 18 month, Thu called Vinh’s arrest “groundless” and insisted that the fight for democratic reform would continue in the country.
“Dissident bloggers can be arrested, blogs can be shut down, but they are like wild grass with deep roots that can't be dug up,” the Associated Press reported, citing her posting.
“The government cannot control information on the Internet, because no one can control the thoughts of other people.”
Call for release
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on Vietnamese authorities to “drop all charges and immediately release” Vinh and Thuy.
“Vietnam’s arrests of more bloggers for allegedly abusing ‘democratic freedoms’ is a cynical and chilling move,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.
“Vietnam should immediately drop these bogus charges, and then take the next step by scrapping Article 258 and other provisions of the penal code regularly used to punish free expression.”
Human Rights Watch said that Vinh and Thuy are among an increasing number of peaceful critics charged under Article 258, noting that at least six other people had been convicted for the same charge in the first three months of 2014, including bloggers Truong Duy Nhat and Pham Viet Dao.
“The government should recognize it cannot drag the Vietnamese people by force back into a pre-Internet world where state-controlled media was completely dominant,” Robertson said.
“The government’s repressive approach will only make people more determined in demanding their rights to freedom of information and expression.”
According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam has detained at least 34 bloggers, making it second only to China in jailing online dissidents.
But Vietnam has been under international pressure to improve its rights record and just last month granted an early release to three political prisoners, including lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu, who immediately flew to the U.S. after Washington helped to broker his freedom.
Experts say the rare move by the Vietnamese authorities was part of Hanoi’s bid to smooth negotiations between the two nations over the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Some U.S. lawmakers want Washington to press Vietnam to improve its human rights record for any inclusion in the proposed 12-nation trade agreement.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Khanh Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.