Vietnamese authorities have decided to press charges against a prominent blogger and his assistant after detaining them for six months for publishing anti-government essays, but lawyers have called the impending court action illegal.
Blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, 58, who is also known as Anh Ba Sam, and his assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, 34, will be charged with violating Penal Code article 258 on “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state,” Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security announced last week.
The announcement came at the end of a police investigation launched shortly after the two were arrested at their homes in the capital Hanoi in May for posting essays “that had the potential to tarnish the state apparatus’ prestige,” according to state media.
Vinh, who is known for founding the political Basam blog, and Thuy could face jail terms of up to seven years if convicted under the charges.
Communist Vietnam, where all media is state-run, does not tolerate dissent, and rights groups identify Article 258 as among the vague provisions the authorities have been using to detain and jail dozens of writers and bloggers over the last two years.
Rights lawyer Ha Huy Son, who represents Vinh, confirmed Monday that he had received results of the police investigation, but told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that he had not been provided with other documents related to the case.
“Based on the investigation process, I see this case has violated the 2003 criminal litigation law of Vietnam [because the police] detained people first and looked for evidence later,” he said.
Blogger Pham Viet Dao, who was freed in September after serving a sentence for violating Article 258, told RFA that the two should not be charged under the same provision because they were only reporting information they had received from other sources.
“If they prosecute Vinh, they have to penalize [his Internet service provider] first, because whatever information Vinh got was through them—he did not produce the information himself,” he said.
He said that people in Vietnam can easily use the Internet to access information that is deemed anti-state and should not be held accountable if they did not create the content.
Rights lawyer Trinh Huu Long said that police had violated international laws against arbitrary arrest when they detained Vinh and Thuy and laws upholding freedom of speech by deciding to charge them under Article 258 because of the essays they posted.
“The [United Nations’] Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulate that nobody shall be subject to arbitrary arrest … [but] the urgent arrests of Basam’s Nguyen Huu Vinh and Thuy [qualify as arbitrary under U.N.] criteria,” he told RFA.
“To conclude that the 24 essays posted on websites run by Vinh and Thuy infringed on legal benefits … violates the right to freedom of speech. We can easily prove the ambiguity and illegality of Article 258 of the penal code.”
Lawyer Long acknowledged that the two bloggers had little hope of escaping a conviction by fighting the charges through Vietnam’s legal system, but said the country’s obligations under the United Nations’ conventions could be used to push for their release.
“We can use such mechanisms to launch a campaign at the U.N. to pressure the government of Vietnam, urging it to explain articles that are not in accordance with international laws and requesting that it make changes to or eradicate such articles,” he said.
He said that the defense had already called on the U.N., the European Union, and the Australian government to pressure Vietnam over the case and “make changes to its legal system,” without specifying what changes had been discussed.
Vinh’s wife, Le Thi Minh Ha, is currently meeting with German lawmakers in Germany to ask for their intervention in her husband’s case, he said.
Vinh, who is a former policeman, originally founded Basam in 2007 as a means to store articles for his own reference, but the site soon became a platform for activists to share blog posts and other content critical of the government.
His profile has been raised as the son of Nguyen Huu Khieu—a former labor minister, top ruling party member, and ambassador to the former Soviet Union, a key ally of Vietnam.
Vietnamese bloggers have said that Basam has traditionally been a forum for demonstrators staging anti-Chinese protests over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and Vinh’s arrest in May came just after Beijing stationed an oil rig in waters claimed by both countries.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, approximately 150 to 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam simply for exercising their basic rights.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.