Vietnam has drawn scathing criticism from international rights groups for imprisoning two Falun Gong activists who beamed radio broadcasts into China, as Hanoi’s human rights record came under scrutiny in two days of talks in Washington.
Le Van Thanh, 36, and his brother-in-law Vu Duc Trung, 31, were sentenced by the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam Thursday to two and three years in prison respectively for “the illegal transmission of information on a telecommunications network” into China, according to Hanoi’s criminal code.
The two men had broadcast Sound of Hope news programs covering human rights abuses, corruption, and the repression of religious groups in China via short-wave from a farm outside of Hanoi since April 2009. They were detained on June 11, 2010 and have remained in custody since, with few family visits.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called the sentencing “a violation of freedom of expression,” and accused Vietnamese authorities of pandering to Chinese pressure in jailing the two men.
"Vietnam should not violate human rights and punish its own citizens merely because their activism displeased China," Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement.
The Falun Gong spiritual movement was banned by China in 1999 as a cult, but the practice is not outlawed in Vietnam.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Thursday that it was “appalled” by the sentencing, calling it “harsh and outrageous.”
“The unlicensed transmission of programs that were not in Vietnamese nor aimed at a Vietnamese audience should not have been characterized as anything other than an administrative offense,” the press freedom organization said.
“This verdict shows the authorities were conveying the anger of their Chinese counterparts, who were the targets of the criticism expressed in the radio programs.”
Falun Gong spokesman Erping Zhang called Thursday a “sad day for Vietnam,” adding that the broadcasts of uncensored news to China did “absolutely nothing to harm Vietnamese society or break Vietnamese law.”
"Sentencing Trung and Thanh to prison in a show trial is shameless and sets a dangerous precedent of the Vietnamese government caving to Chinese Communist Party pressure," Zhang said.
The Falun Gong newspaper Epoch Times quoted a trial witness as saying that Thanh and Trung’s lawyer Tran Dinh Trien had refuted every point raised by prosecutors, who had no rebuttal.
“This is not a trial,” the colleague of Trung said. “It is just a way to frame people. The judges could not respond to any of the points Trien made. They just passed their sentence anyway.”
Lawyer Tran Dinh Trien said that Trung and Thanh had been wrongfully sentenced.
“Based on Clause 226 in the penal code, this case should have been investigated by the police ministry, but the investigation was elevated to the National Security Department,” he said.
Trien said that pressure from China led Vietnamese authorities to deal with the two men more harshly than usual.
“The Chinese government sent an official document in April 2010 before their arrest saying that illegal radio content was being broadcast into China from Vietnam. Then, in May, they sent another letter praising Vietnam for their help in containing Falun Gong, so these are likely related,” the lawyer said.
“We have to use Vietnamese law for Vietnamese citizens, not Chinese law.”
Earlier this week, Amnesty International accused Vietnamese police of harassing at least 30 Falun Gong practitioners who had gathered to meditate outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi to protest Thanh and Trung’s pending trial.
Hanoi’s restrictions on freedom of speech have drawn criticism from Washington and international rights groups over the years.
After two days of bilateral talks on human rights, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that Washington expects Vietnam to work harder on its rights record before the two countries could forge closer ties.
"We have made it clear to Vietnam that if we are to develop a strategic partnership, as both our nations desire, Vietnam must do more to respect and protect its citizens' rights," Clinton said in a speech on Asia policy in Hawaii ahead of a weekend summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
The sentencing of Thanh and Trung came as the U.S. raised concerns at the human rights dialogue over Vietnamese restrictions on media freedoms and other issues it views as obstacles to a strategic alliance between the two nations.
The talks in Washington were led by U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner and Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Director General Hoang Chi Trung.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Thursday that the talks had led to “very frank, candid exchanges,” adding that specific human rights cases had often been raised in past meetings.
The Associated Press quoted a U.S. official who took part in the meetings as saying that the talks had been "respectful but very straightforward." They touched on political prisoners, religious freedoms for both Christians and Buddhists, and restrictions against lawyers and civil society, the official said.
The U.S. side also brought up Hanoi's restrictions on Internet access and alleged use of software to infect computer databases of rights activists, as well as specific cases of political detainees, including Nguyen Van Ly, a 65-year old pro-democracy activist who suffered three strokes in jail.
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Leonard Leo said that while talks are important, Vietnam needs to understand that better relations with the U.S. will only come with greater freedoms.
“If human rights dialogues are pursued without Vietnam acceding to concrete deliverables, they are unproductive … Vietnam should not seek or expect advancement of its trade and security interests … without posting advances in U.S. interests in human rights,” Leo said.
Washington and Hanoi only normalized relations in 1995 after fighting on opposite sides during the Vietnam War.
Reported by Quynh Chi for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.