A group of 14 Vietnamese activists, including Catholics, students, and bloggers, were accused Tuesday of plotting to overthrow the government in an unprecedented trial.
Relatives and supporters of the defendants scuffled with police outside the courthouse in Vinh city, Nghe An province during the trial, which overseas activists said was the largest of its kind in the one-party communist state.
The 14 were charged with working with a banned opposition group, Viet Tan, in a bid to overthrow the government. All of them rejected the charges.
The verdict is expected Wednesday. All face lengthy prison sentences if convicted, while four of them could face life imprisonment or the death penalty, though the government has never employed capital punishment for crimes of anti-state activity.
The activists are accused of colluding with Viet Tan—which is in exile in the U.S. and is considered a terrorist organization by Hanoi—to subvert Vietnam’s communist regime, including by participating in training workshops run by the group on leadership skills and online security.
Defendant Nguyen Dinh Cuong’s sister-in-law Kim Chi, who attended the trial, said some of the accused told the court they had attended the sessions but that their activism was aimed at helping the people, not overthrowing the government.
"They acknowledged that they did participate in the training, but said it was not to overthrow the regime and only to protect the people,” Kim Chi told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“Some also denied the allegations in the indictment,” she said, adding that others refused to say whether they were Viet Tan members or not.
Relatives beaten, supporters clash with police
Other relatives were blocked from the attending the trial, with some of them beaten by police in scuffles outside the courthouse.
Defendant Tran Minh Nhat’s brother told RFA that Cuong’s mother had been beaten after clashes with police outside the building in the afternoon.
"They were brutally beaten with batons. Some suffered injuries to their hands and feet, which were bleeding. Mrs. Hoa, Nguyen Dinh Cuong’s mother, fainted,” he said.
Some of the supporters, including the defendants’ fellow Catholic parishioners, were arrested and taken away in police cars, he said.
Others, including the Rev. J.B. Nguyen Dinh Thuc, who attempted to lead supporters to observe the court session, were briefly taken into custody and later released.
“Two other parishioners and I came near the courthouse, but we were stopped by security police. I asked to be let in…. They wanted my camera, but I refused, and they arrested me,” Thuc told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“They took me for a while, then I told them they had no right to arrest me because there were no signs saying cameras are prohibited. After arguing for a while, they released me,” he said.
The defendants include the director at an investment company and a former staff member of an international NGO, students, and bloggers, as well as a mother and her daughter and son.
At least two of them, including Nong Hung Anh and Le Van Son, are being tried for their blogging activities, according to Viet Tan.
'Overthrowing the state'
The defendants were arrested in 2011 and are charged under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, which forbids “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” or establishing or joining organizations with the intent to do so.
Detainees held under Article 79 can be held for up to 16 months without being brought to trial.
Eleven of the defendants are among a separate group of 17 who have appealed to the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva to intervene on their behalf.
Last week, Stanford University Law professor Allan Weiner filed an update on the group’s petition to the U.N., saying their cases highlight the Vietnamese government’s “increasing reliance on detention powers as a means of suppressing established international human rights.”
Their cases showed how conditions for those engaged in nonviolent political and social activism in Vietnam are “deteriorating,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Khiem Le. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.