A court in central Vietnam on Monday began proceedings against nearly two dozen members of an obscure environmental group for trying to “overthrow” the country’s communist leadership, according to family members and one of the group’s lawyers.
The 22 members of the Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son organization appeared before the court in Phu Yen province at the start of a five-day trial which involved one of the largest numbers of defendants charged with subversion against the one-party communist state in recent history.
The group, whose name translates as the Council for the Laws and Public Affairs of Bia Son (a provincial mountain), face the death penalty if convicted, although Vietnam has never executed a prisoner convicted of carrying out political crimes against the state.
Little is known about the group, which is led by 65-year-old Phan Van Thu, beyond what has been written by Vietnamese authorities, who consider the group a terrorist organization.
When he was arrested about a year ago, Vietnamese state media accused Thu of setting up two companies and investing in an eco-tourism park as a cover for recruiting supporters.
The state-run Vietnamese News Agency said the group had been run “non-violently” by Thu, who is also known as Tran Cong, between 2003 and his arrest in February last year. Membership numbers around 300 and is spread throughout several central and southern cities and provinces.
The group sought to “wear down people's trust in the party and state leadership and create suspicion and concern about the current regime,” the agency reported, adding that the group received funding from overseas Vietnamese.
Thu’s wife Vo Thi Thuy told RFA’s Vietnamese Service said the group’s members were “religious” and strove to protect the environment.
“Everybody knows that we are a religious people. There is nothing to hide,” Thuy said recently.
“Secondly, we are doing this for the local ecology—to make our country beautiful and to provide a good place for people to vacation or for anybody who are looking for a peaceful place for their spirit,” she said.
“That is the goal of Bia Son’s people. They are seniors and young people with diseases. They came to [Thu] to find a solution for their lives.”
Another family member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the defendants were being charged under Article 79 of Vietnam’s 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.
Rights groups say the law has been used in the past as a pretext to repress and silence peaceful democratic voices.
Family members said that they did not hire any lawyers to represent members of the group because they believe that the defendants had acted on behalf of justice and did not intend to overthrow the government.
Vietnamese authorities have jailed dozens of political dissidents since launching a crackdown on freedom of expression at the end of 2009.
Earlier this 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.
In the case over the Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son organization, six lawyers were assigned to the defendants in accordance with Vietnamese law.
“We met with them several times at the prison,” lead lawyer Nguyen Huong Que told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Sunday.
“I saw them last week. They admitted that they were aware of what they were doing from the beginning.”
“They worked for the organization free. For example, [defendant] Nguyen Ky Lac worked for this organization for eight years without any wages. He even asked his family to contribute to the organization,” he said.
“In general, they admitted their goals and their activities. At the court, we will have questions and answers to make things clear.”
Family members of the accused said authorities allowed them access to the hearing.
“[At the trial] this morning, they called everybody’s names. The family members were arranged to sit in one place. Each defendant had four policemen escorting them,” the mother of one defendant—Nguyen Thai Binh—told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“They [the defendants] were accused of committing reactionary crimes. They are all very old and ill,” she said.
Authorities allowed anyone with an invitation into the courtroom to observe the proceedings, said another person in attendance that spoke to RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They did not block anybody … Family members went in after the defendants were brought out,” the observer said.
“The trial room was very small so some people had to sit outside. They did arrange chairs for people to sit and set up loudspeakers outside, so everybody could attend the trial,” they said.
“The defendants were nice people. They did not put up any resistance. They looked calm but ill, and had to limp. They answered questions naturally, according to instructions.”
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.