Updated at 3:00 p.m. EST on 2013-01-09
A court in Vietnam on Wednesday convicted 14 activists of plotting to overthrow the government in a decision condemned by international rights groups concerned over what they see as a worrying trend of political repression in the one-party communist state.
The group of activists, including Catholics, students, and bloggers, were found guilty of “carrying out activities with intent to overthrow the people’s administration” for their involvement with banned opposition group Viet Tan.
In verdicts announced Wednesday afternoon by the court in Vinh city, Nghe An province after a one-day trial, 13 were given sentences of between three and 13 years in prison, in addition to two to five years’ probation.
Another was given a suspended sentence of probation, which in Vietnam equates to house arrest.
Do Van Pham, an uncle of Catholic blogger Le Van Son who was one of three who received 13-year prison sentences, called the conviction “unjust.”
“I took care of him since he was a baby. Now he’s received a sentence that’s too harsh and it is unjust as he did not violate any law or trick anybody," he told RFA's Vietnamese Service.
“I don’t know how the court has evidence for the sentence.”
A relative of Tran Minh Nhat, a Catholic activist and recent student who was the only one of the group to represent himself in court and received a four-year prison sentence, said his family members had not been allowed to talk to him at the trial.
“Had we been able to talk to him we’d have said that his family ... always believes in what he does,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Viet Tan, which is in exile in the U.S. and is considered a terrorist organization by Hanoi, condemned the “arbitrary conviction” of the activists, saying they had been punished for advocating for social justice, engaging in citizen journalism, and participating in peaceful demonstrations.
“By persecuting these individuals for their peaceful expression and political advocacy, the Hanoi regime has shown once again its fear of civil society,” Viet Tan said in a statement.
Amnesty International condemned the court’s decision as part of a “deeply worrying trend” of repression of expression in Vietnam, saying the court’s decision “flies in the face of justice.”
“To misconstrue the activities of the activists as trying to overthrow the government is baseless – they have been imprisoned only for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said
Rupert Abbott, the London.-based watchdog’s researcher on Vietnam.
“We urge the Vietnamese authorities to release the activists immediately and unconditionally,” he said.
Viet Tan in the 1980s led a resistance movement against the Vietnamese communist government but for the past few decades has worked for peaceful political reform, democracy, and human rights in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said.
Many of the convicted are affiliated with Catholic Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which have been part of a growing voice among Vietnamese movements for democracy and human rights in recent years.
“It is not clear if those convicted were targeted for alleged affiliations with Viet Tan, being members of the Redemptorist church, or simply for their activism,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Whatever the reason, the government appears despotic to its own people and the world when it says that someone who tries to uphold the rights of others is a threat to the state.”
The activists were all arrested in 2011 and charged under Article 79 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which bars carrying out anti-state activities and establishing or joining organizations with intent to overthrow the government.
Detainees held under Article 79 can be held for up to 16 months without being brought to trial.
Relatives said Le Van Son, who is also known as Paulus Le Son, had been barred from meeting with them during his detention and had not been informed of his mother’s recent death.
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.
The U.S. embassy in Hanoi also called for their release, saying it was "deeply troubled" by the sentences that "are part of a disturbing human rights trend in Vietnam.”
“We call on the government to release these individuals and all other prisoners of conscience immediately,” it said in a statement.
The 14 were charged after attending a training course in Bangkok held by Viet Tan and participating in workshops on leadership skills and online security.
Eleven were charged with being members of Viet Tan, and three others with actively participating in the organization.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.