A Vietnamese court on Tuesday reduced the jail sentence of a French-Vietnamese professor and blogger following an outcry from Paris, the European Union, and human rights groups over his imprisonment.
Pham Minh Hoang, 56, will be released on Jan. 13 after serving 17 months of a three-year jail sentence for “undermining national security” and “ruining the nation’s image” through writings critical of the Vietnamese government.
But the dual-nationality mathematician will then be required to serve three years under house arrest.
Hoang's wife, Ba Le Thi Kieu Oanh, told RFA that she was the only person allowed inside the courtroom during the appeal trial.
"As his wife, I felt glad, but I was also disappointed because the outcome didn't meet my expectation. I've said many times that he is innocent and I think the public agrees. If one is innocent, 17 months in jail and one month in jail is the same thing," Oanh said.
"I thought he would be acquitted and released right away. So the verdict didn't meet my expectations, but it shows a slight improvement on the Vietnamese side and that makes me happy."
Oanh said that the French consulate in Ho Chi Minh city had offered assistance to the family throughout Hoang's ordeal.
"They sent officials to the prison from time to time. They offered their encouragement and said they would do what was in their power to assist my husband," she said.
"I think the result came about as a result of the French pressure. The prosecutor who proposed the verdict said that his reasoning was to maintain good relations between the two countries."
Oanh said Hoang's three-year house arrest would restrict his movement and might affect his ability to return to France.
"During the probation he must report to the local authorities and get their consent before he is able to go anywhere."
Hoang was arrested by Vietnamese police in August last year for having ties to Viet Tan, a U.S.-based party pushing for reforms in Vietnam, where the party is banned. Under Vietnamese law, his pre-trial detention counts towards his sentence.
Viet Tan has been labeled a terrorist group by the country’s Communist Party. Vietnam is ruled by a one-party political system.
Hoang confirmed during his trial in August this year that he had joined Viet Tan in 1998 while he was living as a French citizen in France, where the organization operates legally.
But the court ruled that Hoang had "blackened the image of the country" and aimed to topple the government while writing 33 articles under the pen name Phan Kien Quoc.
Hoang said at the time that the essays, which he voluntarily handed over to police, did not contain any anti-state content and expressed remorse if they had contributed to less public trust in the government.
Viet Tan welcomed the news of Hoang’s sentence reduction in a statement Tuesday, and cited the professor’s family members as saying he had refused to accept exile and insisted on staying in Vietnam upon his release.
Pressure ahead of appeal
Several rights groups called for Hoang’s unconditional release in the lead-up to his appeal trial on Tuesday.
“Vietnamese authorities should immediately release the blogger Pham Minh Hoang and vacate the verdict against him when his case comes up on appeal,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Monday.
“Vietnam keeps its chokehold on free expression by using vaguely-worded national security laws to imprison peaceful activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Peaceful activists like Pham Minh Hoang deserve to be heard by their fellow citizens, not silenced by the courts.”
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders urged the court “to quash his conviction,” adding that Hoang was “just expressing his views on subjects of public interest in Vietnam, a right guaranteed by the country’s constitution.”
Hoang left Vietnam to study in France in 1973, but returned to his homeland in 2000 to teach mathematics at the Polytechnic University of Ho Chi Minh City.
He had since written several articles online about education, Vietnamese sovereignty in its relations with China, and environmental pollution associated with Chinese-run bauxite mines in Vietnam's Central Highlands.
In September, France said it was "deeply disappointed" that its call for Hoang to be freed under a routine annual amnesty had not been heeded.
In July, Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Nga insisted that “all of the basic rights and freedoms figure in the Vietnamese constitution and in the laws that are below it” and “are respected in practice too,” adding that “no one [in Vietnam] is punished for expressing their opinions.”
Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam 165th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index and listed the country as an “Enemy of the Internet” in a report issued in March this year.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.