A court in Vietnam sent two prominent musicians to prison Tuesday for writing politically sensitive songs, drawing criticism from rights groups which saw the decision as part of a growing crackdown on dissent not tolerated in the one-party communist state.
Following a half-day trial, the People's Court of Ho Chi Minh City handed Vo Minh Tri, a 34-year-old drummer from My Tho in Tien Giang province, four years in prison and Tran Vu Anh Binh, a 37-year-old songwriter from the city, six years in jail, Tri’s lawyer Tran Vu Hai told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
Binh and Tri, who is also known as Viet Khang, were convicted for producing “propaganda against the state” and were also given two years of probation each following completion of jail time.
The Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam, which is responsible for prosecutions and legal matters in Vietnam, had argued for significantly longer sentences for the two musicians, Hai said.
“The Procurator had asked that … the Penal Code’s Article 88 be applied with a jail term of up to 20 years, on the pretext that these were cases of severe propaganda against the state,” the lawyer said.
“We argued that was inappropriate because the court could not show any evidence of such severe propaganda."
Both men were detained under Article 88 of the country’s Penal Code, a provision rights groups say Vietnam has used to detain dozens of bloggers in a campaign to silence dissent.
Binh, who was arrested on Sept. 19, 2011, has written songs against the imprisonment of dissidents, including prominent blogger Nguyen Van Hai—also known as Dieu Cay.
Tri, who was arrested on Dec. 23, 2011, is known for writing lyrics which rail against a widening income gap between Vietnam’s wealthy and poor, and against state crackdowns on activists protesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
Hai said the judge had refused a request by the two men to play their songs in court.
Supporters of the two men said that Tuesday’s trial was heavily guarded and that they were refused entry to the courtroom.
"There were a lot of policemen, even military ones,” said a woman who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity. “Not only did they cordon off the four sides of the court, they also warded people off from afar at the intersections.”
“I walked around to see the intersections. Each had about a dozen to 20 policemen." Father Dinh Huu Thoai from the Catholic Redemptorist Order—of which Binh is a choir member—said he had been removed from the area around the courthouse by police and interrogated at a nearby station.
"Their aim [in escorting me to the Ben Thanh police station] was to delete all the pictures I took and to check my cell phone,” Thoai said.
“The deputy police chief of the station said, 'You are a priest and should only be at church.’ I replied, 'The trial is for one of my church members, Binh, so this morning I came to attend',” he said, adding that he was sent home after being questioned.
Lawyer Hai said the court had accused both men of having ties to the Patriot Youth, an overseas political opposition group.
Hai said that Binh, whose songs had been performed by several popular singers in Vietnam, had been accused of writing for the Patriot Youth political blog.
“He was accused of joining the Patriot Youth, an online organization which aims to produce ‘propaganda against the state’,” the lawyer said.
“[They said] he is in charge of a Patriot Youth blog on which he posted many songs and other information."
Patriot Youth claims Binh as a member who wrote a song called “Pain of the Homeland” under the pen name Hoang Nhat Thong.
Hai said that his client Tri had no political motivation and would appeal his sentence.
"Viet Khang will appeal to a higher court because he said he is not a political activist, he just writes songs about whatever he is thinking,” the lawyer said.
“He would do anything to return to his family."
Call for release
The outcome of the musicians’ trial drew immediate condemnation from international rights groups, which called for the unconditional release of the two men.
Phil Robertson, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, called the jailing an “outrageous new turn of events” in Vietnam, already known for its relentless suppression of dissent.
“Vietnam’s escalating crackdown on freedom of expression has now reached the ranks of musicians, showing that even singing about ideas opposed by the government will see the offender condemned to a long prison term,” he said.
“Jailing song-writers is an outrageous new turn of events that reveals the totality of the government’s intolerance for those raising uncomfortable issues, whether they are economic disparities, police brutality, or Vietnam’s relationship with China.”
The Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights said the sentences showed that Vietnam, which is seeking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2014-2016, is not ready to hold meaningful dialogue with the international community on such issues.
“Once again, Hanoi has displayed its utter contempt for its citizens’ rights and its international obligations,” said Vo Van Ai, president of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.
“Just last week, Vietnam held its annual human rights dialogue with the European Union. Its dialogue with the United States is in November. Between these two rounds of dialogues, Hanoi sentences two young people who have done nothing but to sing of freedom and the love of their country,” Ai said.
“This hypocrisy should cease and these two people should be immediately set free.”
Reported by Gwen Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.