A court in south central Vietnam on Thursday rejected jailed blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh’s appeal of her 10-year prison sentence for publishing politically sensitive material online, prompting condemnation from watchdogs who called the hearing a “farce” and demanded her immediate release.
The People’s Court of Khanh Hoa province, in Nha Trang city, took three hours to uphold the conviction of Quynh—also known by her blogger handle Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom—who was arrested Oct. 10, 2016 while on her way to visit a fellow rights campaigner in prison and sentenced in June to a decade in jail on charges of spreading “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Nguyen Kha Thanh, a lawyer defending the 37-year-old Quynh, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service after the ruling that the closed door proceedings had been “hasty and unsatisfactory.”
“We were allowed to ask questions and debate,” Thanh said.
“We said that Quynh hadn’t committed any crime and that the consequences of what she did were not serious. However, our questions and arguments were ignored by the court.”
He noted that the blogger maintained her innocence throughout the proceedings, as she has done since her arrest last year.
“Quynh was very brave—she didn’t plead guilty,” Thanh said. “She said that she had the right to do what she did.”
Thanh, Nguyen Ha Luan, and Ha Huy Son were the three lawyers representing Quynh on Thursday. A fourth, Vo An Don, was struck from the bar association days before the hearing for posting “sensitive material” on his Facebook page and conducting interviews with foreign media.
According to the lawyers, three investigators who had worked on Quynh’s case had been asked to appear at the hearing Thursday, but none of them attended.
Trinh Kim Tien, an activist from Nha Trang, posted a video to her Facebook page Thursday which showed barriers set up around the court building and Quynh’s mother, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan, being refused entry and trying to force her way past authorities.
When the court adjourned, Quynh’s supporters began shouting slogans opposing the verdict, prompting police to beat and arrest several people, including Lan. Lawyer Vo An Don, and activists Tien and Tran Thu Nguyet had their cellphones confiscated by the authorities.
Attempts by RFA to reach Lan after the hearing went unanswered Thursday.
According to a report by the Associated Press, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told reporters at a regular press briefing Thursday that Quynh's appeals trial had taken place publicly and in accordance with Vietnamese law.
Communist Vietnam, where all media are state-controlled, does not tolerate dissent, and rights groups identify Article 88 as among a set of vague provisions that authorities have used to detain dozens of writers and bloggers.
Quynh’s is one of the more high-profile cases of activists handed heavy sentences as part of an ongoing crackdown by authorities in the Southeast Asian nation.
She had blogged about human rights abuses and corruption for more than a decade, and more recently voiced criticism over Vietnam’s policy toward China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. She has also criticized the government’s response to a 2016 toxic waste spill by a Taiwanese firm that destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Vietnamese living in four coastal provinces.
Shortly after news broke of the court’s decision on Thursday, U.S. Charge d'Affaires Caryn McClelland issued a statement in which she said she was “deeply troubled” by the ruling.
“The United States calls on Vietnam to release Ms. Quynh and all prisoners of conscience immediately, and to allow all individuals in Vietnam to express their views freely and assemble peacefully without fear of retribution," she said.
“The trend of increased arrests, convictions, and harsh sentences of peaceful activists and students since early 2016 is deeply troubling.”
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) rejected the decision and advised Vietnam’s government to carry out its own investigations on Quynh’s reporting, instead of trying to shut her up.
“We strongly condemn today's ruling to uphold the 10-year prison sentence given to blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh for doing her job as a reporter,” said CPJ senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin.
“Critical reporting on poor governance, official abuses, and environmental disasters should not be considered a crime in Vietnam. Quynh should be released without delay.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, declared the hearing “a joke from the start,” with Vo An Don disbarred and her mother, relatives and supporters being refused entry to the courtroom.
“The proceedings were a farce, with the judge simply going through the motions before issuing the harsh verdict predetermined by the ruling communist party, upholding her long prison sentence,” he said.
Robertson slammed U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders for failing to use the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang earlier this month to raise public concerns about Vietnam’s rights record.
“Not raising human rights with Vietnam is like giving leaders in Hanoi a green light to commit more and they have not hesitated for a second,” he said.
“With many governments and donors having shamelessly fallen silent on human rights, Hanoi is going after the opinion leaders like Mother Mushroom first, with the hope that chopping down her and other prominent dissident heroes will intimidate rank and file activists to halt their activities.”
Robertson echoed Crispin’s suggestion that Vietnam’s government should be honoring Quynh for her work “instead of separating a mother from her young children simply because they don't like her criticism, and packing her off to rot for ten years in a harsh prison cell.”
Cost of crackdown
Local activists told RFA that while Vietnam’s crackdown on dissent has been harsh, they remain committed to standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens and would not be deterred.
“Despite knowing that cruelty has taken place, and will certainly increase, we all know in advance where our path will lead,” said former prisoner of conscience Bui Thi Minh Hang.
“The government's persecutions and repression, and its convictions of democracy activists, will not undermine our will to fight.”
Hang said that although some may be frightened by the government’s tactics, “those who are committed … are unflinching in our resolve,” adding that she expected more brutality would needed to “push people beyond their tolerance … [and make them] stand up to fight.”
Activist Nguyen Lan Thang said that the crackdown had naturally exhausted some of those who speak out against government injustice.
“Their strength is limited, while the [government’s] attack is endless—they do anything they can to harm us, including using the courts, tearing down our businesses, and even throwing shrimp sauce and paint into our homes,” he said.
“However, I think that such strong repression can also create indignation in the minds of the people, and this will cause them to fight in the future.”
Vietnam is currently holding at least 84 prisoners of conscience, the highest number in any country in Southeast Asia, according to rights group Amnesty International.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Vietnam 175th out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.