Vietnam has upheld the jail sentences of two land activists and reduced the sentences of two others following an appeal, but human rights groups said they should be freed and condemned the government for “criminalizing” freedom of speech.
Judges from the Ho Chi Minh City-based People's Supreme Court of Appeals, after a five-hour trial on Thursday, decided to maintain the eight-year jail term for Tran Thi Thuy and seven-year term for Pham Van Thong, according to relatives of the defendants who were informed of the decision.
Another activist, Pastor Duong Kim Khai, had his six-year prison term cut by one year while the five-year prison sentence for Cao Van Tinh was reduced by six months at the appeal trial in southern Ben Tre province. Relatives and supporters of the activists were prevented from attending the proceedings.
All four activists, who have assisted villagers in land disputes in the Mekong Delta region, will remain subject to five years of house arrest upon completion of their jail terms.
They were sentenced in May along with three others, who did not appeal their sentences.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch called for the four to be released immediately, saying they had been tried in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party.
“Judging by their rolling crackdown on those who express dissenting views, Vietnam’s leaders seem to think that they can sign international human rights treaties with invisible ink,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
He called on the United Nations and Vietnam’s donors, which includes the U.S., to “speak up loud and clear to condemn Hanoi’s actions, and demand the release of everyone it has imprisoned for exercising their right to peaceful expression, association, and assembly.”
Barred from court
Cao Thi Sam, sister of Cao Van Tinh, said she had been prevented from observing the proceedings.
“I could only sit outside the courtroom and try to get news as people came out. There was no closed circuit camera. The defendants were allowed to have defense attorneys, but it didn’t end up doing much good for them,” Sam said.
“Tinh only followed the instructions of Thuy, but he still got five years. Now it’s only six months less. They should have given him less of a punishment—maybe probation. These people aren’t guilty—they only made a mistake,” she said.
“They have repented, but their sentences remained more or less the same. They said what they were supposed to say, but they were given no mercy.”
The families of Thuy and Thong and the supporters and members of Pastor Khai’s house church were also barred from entering the courthouse, which was surrounded by a heavy police presence during the trial.
Tran Dinh Ky, a member of Pastor Khai’s Mennonite Cattle Shed congregation in Ho Chi Minh City, said he was followed by authorities as soon as he set foot in the city.
“I went to Ben Tre, but I was blocked from attending the trial. The police were everywhere,” he said.
“I came here for the first trial [in May], so they knew me and tried to make me return home. As soon as I got here, a vehicle began to follow me. They stopped me and I never even got a chance to see the courthouse.”
The activists were convicted by the Ban Tre People’s Court on May 30 of “attempting to overthrow the people’s administration.”
Authorities alleged that the four were found in possession of anti-government documents, which state media characterized as “calling for a multiple party system and distort[ing] the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam.”
They said the activists had received training from the U.S.-based opposition group Viet Tan, which is banned in Vietnam and considered a terrorist group by the ruling Communist Party.
Defense lawyer Huynh Van Dong was ejected from the courtroom during the May trial for “disrespecting the law” when he tried to argue against the accusations. He was later disbarred on a recommendation by Ban Tre court officials, according to court documents.
All of the defendants have spent years helping citizens to resist land confiscations and fight for land rights in Vietnam.
Pastor Khai has assisted land rights petitioners from the Mekong Delta to file complaints with local, provincial, and national authorities. His congregation has been based in the cattle barn of a supporter since the previous house of worship was seized by authorities.
Tran Thi Thuy, a Hoa Hao Buddhist follower, has been struggling with authorities for many years to regain her family’s land, which was confiscated by local officials. Pham Van Thong and Cao Van Tinh were also persistent land rights activists.
According to a statement by Viet Tan, since their conviction, the four activists have faced retribution in jail and had been refused visits from family members, who were never formally notified of their appeals trial.
The group said the activists were able to meet with their defense lawyers only on Wednesday, one day before the appeal trial took place.
Tran Thi Thuy had also fallen ill and developed severe migraines after eating prison food which Viet Tan claimed was tainted with a toxin.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.