A court in Vietnam on Monday sentenced 22 activists to jail terms ranging from 12 years to life in prison for “aiming to overthrow” the one-party communist government, according to rights groups and relatives of the accused who condemned the lengthy jail terms.
The verdict against the members of the little known group, Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son, was delivered by a court in Phu Yen province following a five-day trial and marks the latest in a series of harsh punishments by the government as part of a crackdown on dissent.
The group, whose name translates as the Council for the Laws and Public Affairs of Bia Son (a provincial mountain), is led by 65-year-old Phan Van Thu and is considered a terrorist organization by Vietnamese authorities, who say it has several hundred members and branches in a number of central and southern provinces.
Nguyen Tan Xe, the father of defendant Nguyen Thai Binh, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that his son and the other group members on trial had all received varying lengths of jail time.
“They handed out sentences to all of them,” Xe said. “One person was sentenced to life, while the others received [a range of terms].”
“The minimum was 12 years,” he said.
The group’s leader Phan Van Thu, 65, was condemned to life imprisonment and the other 21 defendants received sentences of up to 17 years, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, a Paris-based group, said.
“The truth is that we are a religious people, but they [the authorities] kept accusing us of plotting subversion. What can we do now? We have to accept [the verdict],” Xe said.
“They accused us of making our own national emblem but they could not provide evidence for that. They kept saying that we made the emblem and created a new state. What a joke,” he said.
“They [the court and prosecutor’s office] never let us tell our side of the story.”
Thu’s wife Vo Thi Thuy had told RFA the group’s members were “religious” and strove to protect the environment.
The group’s court-appointed lawyer, Nguyen Huong Que said that most of his clients had “admitted their crime of aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” and that the sentences were “adequate for their crimes,” Agence France-Presse reported.
According to state media, the group had built up their numbers while pretending to operate an ecotourism site in Phu Yen province and had been distributing anti-government documents before their arrest in February last year.
The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said in a statement Monday that it was “profoundly shocked by the extremely harsh sentences” given to a “nonviolent group” which had pledged to protect the environment in Phu Yen.
“This is another blow to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in Vietnam” VCHR President Vo Van Ai said in the statement.
“Vietnam’s human rights record is abysmal, and it is getting worse. Imprisoning an elderly man for life just because of his nonviolent beliefs is a new low, even by Vietnam’s standards,” he said, referring to the group’s leader, Thu.
Ai added that the group did not have the right to a fair trial and that their court-appointed lawyers had “accepted the sentences proposed by the People’s Procuracy without discussion.”
VCHR said that the Council for the Laws and Public Affairs of Bia Son believed in the prophecies of a 16th century oracle named Nguyen Binh Khiem and had dreamed of building a utopia based on the balance of science, nature, and humankind.
The group was originally charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the State,” under Article 258 of the Penal Code, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
But the charges against them were changed in April 2012 to “subversion” under Article 79 which is punishable by the death penalty, although Vietnam has never executed a prisoner convicted of carrying out political crimes against the state.
International rights organizations and the United Nations have repeatedly criticized Article 79, which makes no distinction between violent acts and the exercise of peaceful expression, and which they say has been used in the past as a pretext to repress and silence democratic voices.
Vietnamese authorities have jailed dozens of political dissidents since launching a crackdown on freedom of expression at the end of 2009.
Early last month, a court convicted 14 activists, including Catholics, students, and bloggers, of “carrying out activities with intent to overthrow the people’s administration” for their involvement with the banned overseas opposition group Viet Tan.
Nearly all of them were ordered jailed for between three and 13 years in prison.
Last week, the authorities deported Nguyen Quoc Quan, a Vietnamese-American origin, after detaining him for nine months without trial on charges of subversion and of being a member of Viet Tan.
In December, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered a new crackdown on online dissent, ordering authorities to contain use of the Internet to “defame and spread propaganda against the party and state.”
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.