An appeals court in Vietnam on Friday freed a student activist serving a six-year jail term for alleged subversion, her lawyer said, in a rare display of clemency by the one-party communist state lauded by fellow activists and rights groups.
Few expected 21-year-old Nguyen Phuong Uyen, who was sentenced for distributing anti-government leaflets, to walk free from the hearing, according to attorney Nguyen Thanh Luong.
Uyen’s co-defendent, 25-year-old computer technician Dinh Nguyen Kha, had his eight-year sentence for subversion cut in half, Luong said.
The two were sentenced under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code together in Long An province in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam in May. They were arrested in October last year during a protest against China’s overlapping claims with Vietnam to islands in the South China Sea.
“There were many surprises—Nguyen Phuong Uyen now has a suspended three-year sentence and was freed at the trial … [though she] also has another 52 months of probation,” the lawyer told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“Dinh Nguyen Kha’s sentence was reduced by half,” he said, adding that he had been given three years of probation to be served following his release from jail.
Prosecutors had originally suggested upholding Uyen’s six-year prison sentence and reducing Kha’s to between five and six years, but later changed their proposal without providing an explanation, leading some observers to say that Vietnam’s top leadership may have been behind the move.
Both Uyen and Kha chose to represent themselves during the appeal hearing, which neither defendant’s family members were allowed to attend.
Luong said that relatives and supporters were overjoyed by the news.
“Uyen being freed at the trial was exactly what people had been calling for. Many intellectuals said that what Uyen and Kha did was out of patriotism and that they deserved to be praised, not imprisoned,” he said.
“[Observers] think that the government compromised because of public pressure.”
Around 100 supporters had gathered outside of the appeal court shouting that both defendants were innocent and should be set free. They also called for an end to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, and a greater government focus on combating graft and land grabs.
A number of the protesters were detained by police, but released before the end of the hearing, observers told RFA.
Uyen was released to cheers and applause from happy supporters outside the courtroom.
Speaking to RFA, Uyen praised her mother Nguyen Thi Nhung as her greatest supporter, saying that she had stood by her throughout her ordeal, despite pressure from the authorities.
She maintained that while she had spoken out against the ruling Communist Party, she had never made anti-state remarks and therefore had been unfairly sentenced under Article 88—which carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison and which is routinely brought against dissidents.
“We must not grow old and endure regret because our life had no meaning—we must do our best according to what we know to be right,” she said.
“I [told the court] that I did not violate Article 88 and said it is the fault of the prosecutor’s office that charges were pressed on me. I only disrespected the Party, but because of this they charged me with going against the state. I want justice.”
At least 46 activists have been convicted under Article 88 or similar anti-state charges this year.
Uyen’s mother Nhung expressed joy and pride over her daughter’s release.
“I’m very happy to see my daughter freed. She got her freedom back and defended her point of view until the end at the hearing,” she said.
Kha’s mother Nguyen Kim Lien also praised the court decision.
“I’m very happy today as his sentence is now reduced from eight to four years. They listened to the public and they reduced his sentence. I’m also happy to see that Uyen only received a suspended sentence and was freed,” she said.
But she questioned why her other son Dinh Nhat Uy, who was detained in June and is awaiting trial for “anti-state activity” related to blog postings, had yet to be released.
“My other son Uy is still in prison and I am waiting for him to get out because he is innocent. If Uyen is freed [because she was deemed not to have attacked the state] then they have no reason to keep Uy.”
Rights groups and fellow activists also welcomed the decision to free Uyen and reduce Kha’s sentence, which many called unprecedented, but urged the government to immediately release Kha and other dissidents.
Phil Robertson, of the New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said it was “likely that international pressure had something to do with this outcome,” adding that the international community should “re-double their efforts” in criticizing Vietnam’s human rights record.
“While this result is beyond expectations, it doesn't change the fact that these two youths should have never been charged or imprisoned in the first place,” he said, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Kha.
Priest Dinh Huu Thoai, who was among those awaiting the verdict outside the appeal hearing, said it was hard to express the happiness felt by supporters over Uyen’s release.
“They got the news about the verdict even before the police [outside the courthouse] knew. They were ecstatic and the police were surprised,” he said.
“I’ve never seen something like this before where I have been able to witness just what I had hoped would happen before the hearing.”
Journalist Kha Luong Ngai, who was detained during the hearing and later released, said supporters were overjoyed by the news.
“We all see this victory as the start of an irreversible trend. Our country needs to fall in line with the rest of the civilized, democratic world,” he said.
“Through this trend, other prisoners of conscience … must gradually be released. I think the government will have to release them to make this country become civilized and democratic, and for the good of our development as a nation.”
Reported by Gia Minh and Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.