An international rights watchdog has called on Vietnam to release four Catholic activists accused of conducting propaganda against the state and to drop all charges against them, in a statement on the eve of their long-awaited trial beginning Thursday.
The four men—Dau Van Duong, 24, Tran Huu Duc, 24, Chu Manh Son, 23, and Hoang Phong, 25—will be tried in a court in northern Vietnam’s Nghe An province for allegedly distributing pro-democracy leaflets.
The activists, all students or recent graduates in the city of Vinh, had participated in volunteer activities including donating blood, helping orphans and natural disaster victims, and encouraging women not to have abortions, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
“They’re local volunteers, people supporting the Catholic Church, working on basic association expression issues … people who are operating on a day-to-day basis in support of what they believe,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
“For them to be charged with propaganda against the state for allegedly distributing leaflets is really beyond the pale. It shows very clearly that the government of Vietnam does not respect freedom of religion or expression,” he said.
They are to be charged under Article 88 of the penal code, which rights groups say is often used by the Vietnamese authorities to arbitrarily imprison bloggers, legal advocates, and other critics of the state .
“Article 88 is the equivalent of a legal buzz-saw, designed to cut down those who freely criticize or question the government,” Robertson said in a statement.
Three of the activists have been held since August of last year and the fourth since December.
If convicted, they face sentences of between three and 20 years under Article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code.
A day before the hearing, the activist’s families have yet to receive formal notice to attend, according to Viet Tan, an opposition group banned in Vietnam that monitors human rights in the country.
The activists have only recently had access to their lawyers, the group said.
Vietnam's constitution guarantees freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity is closely monitored and remains under state control.
With six million members, Catholicism is the country’s second-largest religion after Buddhism, but tensions between the community and the Hanoi government have led to unrest over church property and other issues.
But the four activists, who allegedly distributed leaflets calling for political pluralism and criticizing the government, are facing charges not under rules governing religious activity, but freedom of expression.
Article 88 calls for punishment for such acts as “propaganda,” “circulating documents or cultural products,” or “psychological warfare” against the government.
“Vietnam’s leaders should repeal this draconian law and listen to their people,” Robertson said.
In March, two other Catholic activists, Vo Thi Thu Thuy and Nguyen Van Thanh, were sentenced to five and three years in jail, respectively, under Article 88 for distributing anti-government leaflets, HRW said.
The two were associated with Nguyen Van Ly, 65, a Catholic priest and long-time pro-democracy activist who has spent half of the past three decades in jail, HRW said.
In 2011, at least ten bloggers and activists were jailed under the provision, and at least three more bloggers—the well-known Nguyen Van Hai (also known as Dieu Cay) and other founders of the Free Journalists Club website—are awaiting charges under Article 88.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.