A Vietnamese court has sentenced four Catholic activists to up to three and a half years in jail for conducting propaganda against the state, their lawyers and family members said Thursday, after what international rights groups called a sham trial.
The four were convicted despite a lack of evidence, one lawyer said, and their families complained they were not officially notified of the court proceedings.
The accused, all students or recent graduates from the northern city of Vinh, were sentenced under Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code—a controversial provision rights groups say is often used arbitrarily to imprison bloggers, legal advocates, and other critics of the state—for distributing pro-democracy leaflets.
A crowd of over 100 people gathered in front of the Nghe An provincial courthouse for the four-hour hearing Thursday morning, some carrying flowers and banners saying the activists were innocent, while police and fire trucks stood guard.
The court handed jail terms of three years and six months to Dau Van Duong, three years and three months to Tran Huu Duc, and three years to Chu Manh Son, with each sentence followed by at least a year of probation.
The fourth activist, Hoang Phong, was given 18 months’ probation.
Activist Tran Huu Duc’s father, Tran Duc Truong, said the young men admitted in court to distributing leaflets but said the materials were peaceful and not intended to defy the state.
“I'm not satisfied because my son's activities are not worth punishing and yet the sentence is so severe. My family will appeal against this severe sentence,” he said.
Chu Manh Son’s lawyer, Vuong Thi Thanh, said she had argued in the court that there had not been enough evidence to support the charges of conducting anti-state propaganda.
"Our defense was based on the fact that documented evidence has not yet been comprehensively collected, so we suggested the documents be returned for re-investigation. This must be done in order for the trial to be transparent, fair, and objective,’ she said.
“However, the court finally declared that lawyers' argument did not affect the case,” she said.
The activists’ family members, who had not been given notices allowing them to attend the hearing, made their way in after the crowd broke through a barricade outside the courtroom.
“We had to argue for some time for them to let us enter the court. We had to take a risky action by breaking the barrier while declaring that we are family members of defendants. Some others joined in with us,” Tran Duc Truong said.
The families of Chu Manh Son and Tran Huu Duc said they would appeal the court’s decision, while Dau Van Duong’s family said they were dissatisfied with the verdict but were undecided about appealing.
Call for release
On the eve of the trial, international rights group Human Rights Watch called for the release of the four activists and demanded that the charges against them be dropped.
As members of the Catholic community in Vinh, the four had participated in volunteer activities including donating blood, helping orphans and natural disaster victims, and encouraging women not to have abortions, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
“They’re local volunteers, people supporting the Catholic Church, working on basic association expression issues … people who are operating on a day-to-day basis in support of what they believe,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
He said the case “shows how Article 88 is used as an effective buzz-saw to go after and instill fear in persons who would … express views that the Vietnamese government sees as somehow going against their interest.”
The article calls for punishment for such acts as “conducting propaganda,” “circulating documents or cultural products,” or “psychological warfare” against the government.
In March, two other Catholic activists Vo Thi Thu Thuy and Nguyen Van Thanh were sentenced to five and three years in jail, respectively, under the same Article 88 for distributing anti-government leaflets, HRW said.
The two were associated with Nguyen Van Ly, 65, a Catholic priest and long-time pro-democracy activist who has spent half of the past three decades in jail, HRW said.
In 2011, at least ten bloggers and activists were jailed under the provision, and at least three more bloggers—the well-known Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, and other founders of the Free Journalists Club website—are awaiting charges under Article 88.
Vietnam's constitution guarantees freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity is closely monitored and remains under state control.
With six million members, Catholicism is the country’s second-largest religion after Buddhism, but tensions between the community and the Hanoi government have led to unrest over church property and other issues.
Reported by Viet Ha and Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.