A court in Vietnam on Monday sentenced seven land rights campaigners and democracy activists to between two and eight years in jail for "subversion" in one of the biggest political trials in recent years under the country's one-party communist rule.
After a day-long closed-door trial held under heavy security, the People's Court in southern Ben Tre province convicted the seven of "attempting to overthrow the people's administration," according to lawyers.
The activists have been helping residents file letters of complaint over the loss of their land seized by local authorities and sold to developers, rights groups said.
According to the court charges, land reform activist Tran Thi Thuy and her "accomplices" were affiliated with banned opposition group Viet Tan and involved with an unsanctioned Christian house church.
The defendants included 52-year-old veteran pastor Duong Kim Khai from a Mennonite Church offshoot. Although the Mennonite Church has official recognition from the Vietnamese government, Khai heads a splinter group with about 10,000 members called the "Cattle Shed Church" in Ho Chi Minh City.
Three of the accused were believed to be members of Viet Tan, a U.S.-based opposition group also known as the Vietnam Reform Party. Viet Tan calls itself nonviolent and pro-democracy, but the communist state calls it a "terrorist group."
'No access to lawyers'
Thuy received eight years in jail and five years' probation while Khai received six years' imprisonment and five years' probation. The others received sentences of between two to seven years.
They have not been allowed to see their families or lawyers since they were rounded up last year, according to Viet Tan, which strongly condemned the trial as "travesty of justice."
The "pre-determined sentencing" of the seven "is further evidence of why the Hanoi regime lacks popular legitimacy and is routinely condemned for its human rights violations by the international community," Viet Tan spokesman Duy Hoang said Monday.
"With these unjust sentences, the Hanoi regime has attempted to silence seven activists who spoke out against the regime's failings," he said.
Viet Tan challenged the Hanoi government to substantiate its charges against the seven before U.N. human rights bodies and international public opinion.
"More than ever, Viet Tan will continue to promote understanding of nonviolent civic action and partner with Vietnamese compatriots from all walks of life to bring about democratic change through nonviolent means," Duy Hoang said.
Court area sealed off
The Vietnamese authorities had mobilized security police to prevent other aggrieved citizens and some relatives of the defendants from attending the trial or gathering outside the court, Viet Tan said.
Hundreds of bystanders milled around the court area Monday as the trial proceeded. The area was sealed off by uniformed and plainclothes police, witnesses said.
"The police used armored cars to hide the scene, preventing us from looking at the courthouse. They followed us so closely, using cameras and recorders to film us," Nguyen Thi Ho, a Mennonite Church follower who tried to go to the court, said in an interview.
"The police cordoned the area from afar, no cars were allowed in. Some of us have to pay to take motorbike rides to approach the court area but we had to sit in cafe houses, not on the pavements," she said.
Last week, five U.S. lawmakers wrote to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, describing the case as "a stain on your government's increasingly troublesome religious freedom record".
The letter, led by Republican lawmaker Ed Royce from the House of Representatives, had hoped that the charges against the "peaceful" activists would be dismissed.
'Grave miscarriage of justice'
On Monday, Loretta Sanchez, the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, condemned the trial, saying the Vietnamese government was depriving its citizens of basic civil and political liberties.
"A grave miscarriage of justice, the trial of the seven activists lacked due process from beginning to end," the House lawmaker said in a statement.
"Many of the activists experienced violence during the time of arrest. In addition, defense lawyers of the seven activists were reportedly denied access to the defendants and documents relating to their case," she said.
While the Vietnamese government insists it has achieved significant progress on human rights, rights group Amnesty International says dozens of peaceful political critics have been sentenced to long prison terms since Hanoi launched a crackdown on free expression in late 2009.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.