Updated at 5:30 p.m. EST on 2012-09-24
Three bloggers in Vietnam, who spoke out on corruption in the one party state, were sentenced Monday to between four and 12 years in prison for “anti-state propaganda” in court convictions criticized by the U.S. government and international human rights groups.
Vietnamese authorities, accused of maintaining some of the harshest media controls in Asia, detained family members and supporters of the three as well as a dozen other bloggers to keep them out of the hearing held in a Ho Chih Minh City court.
Nguyen Van Hai, an outspoken blogger and citizen journalist who was a founding member of the banned ‘Free Journalists Club’ website, was given the harshest sentence —12 years in prison —for political blogging that included hundreds of articles posted online.
“He pleaded innocent and I requested his release, but the court would not accept such a result,” his lawyer Ha Huy Son told Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese service, adding that none of the bloggers’ relatives had been present at the hearing.
Fellow blogger Ta Phong Tan was sentenced to 10 years in prison while Phanh Thanh Hai received four years.
The trio, who had written on the Free Journalists Club citizen journalism website criticizing human rights abuses, corruption and foreign policy in Vietnam, were convicted on charges of “conducting propaganda” against the one-party communist state.
Outside the hearing
The three bloggers were convicted under Article 88 of the penal code, a provision rights groups say Vietnam has used to detain dozens of bloggers in a campaign to silence dissent.
"They abused the popularity of the Internet to post articles which undermined and blackened Vietnam's (leaders), criticizing the (Communist) party and destroying people's trust in the state," Court President Nguyen Phi Long said in justifying the ruling, according to Agence France-Presse.
In addition to the prison terms, Nguyen Van Hai and Phan Thanh Hai were also given five years’ probationary detention, or house arrest, while Phan Thanh Hai was given three years.
Ta Phong Tan, a Catholic policewoman-turned-blogger whose mother committed suicide by setting herself on fire in August, was led out of the courtroom screaming, according to the news agency.
Phanh Tanh Hai, the only one of the three to plead guilty, promised the court "not to commit the crime again and to have no further contact with anti-state people,” the news agency reported.
In a speech cut off in the audio feed for diplomats and journalists attending the trial, Nguyen Van Hai, who is also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, said in his defense that he had never been against Vietnam’s Communist Party, according to the news agency.
"I just feel frustrated by injustice, corruption, dictatorship which does not represent the state but some individuals,” he said, before the sound was cut off.
The case of blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who has been held since he finished serving his sentences on other charges in October 2010, was raised by U.S .President Barack Obama in May.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said Monday it was “deeply concerned” that Vietnam had convicted Nguyen Van Hai for “peacefully expressing his political views” and called for the release of the three bloggers.
The U.S. State Department said it was "deeply troubled" about the convictions and warned that Vietnam's protection of human rights is critical to relations between the two countries.
"These convictions are the latest in a series of moves by Vietnamese authorities to restrict freedom of expression," State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland said.
"Protection of human rights is a necessary step in developing a closer, more mature bilateral relationship."
International rights groups have called on Vietnam to release the three bloggers and drop charges against them.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, said the bloggers’ convictions showed Vietnam’s “contempt” for human rights.
"These harsh sentences against bloggers are absolutely outrageous and show the depth of the Vietnam government's intolerance of views that oppose its own.”
“By its actions today, the Vietnam government is showing contempt for international human rights and daring the international community to do something about it,” he said, warning the convictions could hurt the country’s chances in its bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2014.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.