BANGKOK—A Vietnamese court in Hanoi has rejected appeals by eight Roman Catholics convicted of disturbing public order and damaging property during a string of protests demanding the return of land that once belonged to the Church.
Judge Nguyen Quoc Hoi upheld the sentences handed down by a lower court in December. Seven of the defendants received suspended sentences ranging from 12 to 15 months, and another received a warning. They all got two years of probation.
"The defendants' actions were dangerous and undermined national unity," Hoi said, calling the sentences lenient.
Several of the defendants were arrested after they knocked down a section of the wall surrounding the property and set up an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary last August.
The defendants, who say they were exercising their right to free speech, denounced the court’s decision on Friday and vowed further appeals.
Vow to appeal
“We’ve been the victims of injustice, and we’re going to appeal to the Supreme Court. Everyone is unhappy,” Nguyen Thi Viet, one of the defendants, said in an interview.
Video: The scene outside the courtroom in Thai Ha
Defense attorney Huynh Van Dong accused the court of speeding through the case and barring relevant arguments.
“There are many things we wanted to present to explain the root cause of the defendants’ actions, but we weren’t allowed,” Dong said.
“Maybe they wanted to rule on this appeal as quickly as possible. They didn’t answer our requests to clarify facts either,” he said. “There’s no justice for these defendants.”
This case stemmed from a series of mostly peaceful vigils near land once owned by Thai Ha Church in Hanoi—now worth millions of dollars.
The Hanoi government confiscated the plot several years after taking power from the French in 1954. It was then given to a state-owned garment factory.
The government has used most of the six-hectare (15-acre) property to build a hospital, a now-demolished textile factory, and other structures.
Law practice suspended
Defense attorney Le Tran Luat, whom authorities stopped in Ho Chi Minh City and barred from the appeals hearing, said he was happy his clients stayed out of prison but added, “Justice has not been enforced.”
Luat said he is undergoing daily interrogations and will lose his law license unless he admits to making “reactionary” arguments in court on behalf of clients who have sued or criticized the government.
On Friday, the official Vietnamese newspaper Nhan Dan said Luat’s law practice had been suspended, accusing him of “[breaching] his career’s morality” and evading taxes.
Catholicism claims more than 6 million followers in Vietnam, making it the second largest religion after Buddhism among Vietnam's 86 million people.
Original reporting and translation by Tra Mi for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Additional reporting by the Associated Press. Service director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Produced by Joshua Lipes.