Updated at 3:30 p.m. EST on 2012-08-07
Around twenty supporters of three Vietnamese bloggers accused of "conducting propaganda against the state” gathered in Ho Chi Minh City Tuesday to demand an explanation from Vietnamese court officials for the delay of their trial on the day it was scheduled to begin.
Vietnamese authorities postponed the trial last week, claiming defense lawyers had called for the delay following the self-immolation death of the mother of one of the accused.
But the attorneys for Ta Phong Tan, a Catholic former policewoman, Nguyen Van Hai, better known by his online alias Dieu Cay, and Phan Thanh Hai, known as Anh Ba Saigon, denied ever having made any request to the court.
One of the supporters, Father Dinh Huu Thoai from the Catholic Redemptorist Order, said his group of fellow bloggers had traveled to the court with Nguyen Van Hai’s ex-wife seeking an answer from officials.
“We went with Dang Thi Tan … The relatives of the two other detained bloggers live far away, so they couldn’t join us,” he said.
“Our purpose is to make clear why the trial was postponed. [The court officials] can’t just do whatever they want.”
The supporters said that after asking the whereabouts of the court’s chief judge, a court clerk informed them that he was absent for the day, but they later saw him entering the court and approached him.
The chief judge reiterated the court’s earlier claim that the defense attorneys had requested the delay “to ensure the rights of the defendants and their legal benefits” and left for his chambers.
When the group of supporters returned home from the court on Tuesday they reported being under close surveillance by local authorities.
The bloggers’ lawyers said last week that they had been told by a court clerk to pick up an official notice informing them that the postponement had been a result of their request, but they maintain that they had only asked the court to ensure “appropriate legal procedures be respected.”
No new date has been set for the trial.
The postponement came as authorities on Friday launched an investigation into the self-immolation death of Ta Phong Tan’s mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, who set herself ablaze in front of a municipal building in Bac Lieu province earlier this week in protest of her daughter’s trial.
A family member said Lieng was also troubled by a threatened eviction from her town over a personal land dispute which the government had not resolved, despite numerous petitions sent to officials.
Washington has expressed concerns over Lieng's death and called on Hanoi to release all three bloggers.
The three bloggers are charged with "distorting the truth, denigrating the party and state" for politically critical blogging and for posting hundreds of articles on a banned website known as the "Free Journalists Club" of Vietnam.
They face a maximum of 20 years in prison, based on the charges under Article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, a draconian provision that prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state.”
London-based human rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday said the detention and trial of the three bloggers is part of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the country, along with recent mass arrests in the capital Hanoi over the weekend.
On Aug. 5, authorities arrested and detained around 30 people, including at least four prominent bloggers, during a peaceful protest against China's territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. All of the detainees were later released.
“The ongoing crackdown has put bloggers, writers, lawyers, labor activists, members of religious groups, farmers, business people and democracy activists behind bars,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Vietnam.
Following reports of the delay of the trial for the three bloggers, Amnesty called on the Vietnamese government to "immediately and unconditionally" release them, adding that their detention is "arbitrary under international law."
“The three bloggers are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression through their online writings,” Abbott said.
“The mass arrests of peaceful protestors in Ha Noi and the ongoing detention of the three bloggers sadly reflect the dire situation of freedom of expression in Vietnam.”
Amnesty noted that Vietnam announced its intent to gain a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council and has sought to strengthen its relationship with the United States and other countries.
It said donor countries must do more to push the Vietnamese government to improve its human rights record, and commended Washington for demanding the release of Nguyen Van Hai and the other bloggers.
“Amnesty International is calling on donor countries to prioritize human rights in their developing relationships with Vietnam,” Abbott said.
“They must do all that they can to support those whose voices the Vietnamese authorities are trying to silence.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.