Vietnamese authorities on Friday postponed a trial for three prominent Vietnamese bloggers, claiming their lawyers had called for the delay following the self-immolation death of the mother of one of the defendants.
But the attorneys for the three activists denied ever having made any request to the court in Ho Chi Minh City, which was scheduled to begin the trial on Tuesday.
Ta Phong Tan, a Catholic former policewoman, Nguyen Van Hai, better known by his online alias Dieu Cay, and Phan Thanh Hai, known as Anh Ba Saigon, are facing charges of conducting propaganda against the state.
The postponement came as authorities on Friday launched an investigation into the self-immolation death of Tan’s mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, who set herself ablaze in front of a municipal building in Bac Lieu province earlier this week in protest of her daughter’s trial, according to Tan’s sister Ta Minh Tu.
Tu said her mother was also troubled by a threatened eviction from her town over a personal land dispute which the government had not resolved, despite numerous petitions sent to officials.
Phan Thanh Hai’s lawyer, Doan Thai Duyen Hai, told RFA that a court clerk had contacted him and the other two lawyers to inform them that the trial had been postponed and to ask that they pick up the official notification from the courthouse.
“This afternoon I went to the court to learn the reason for the postponement and the date of the rescheduled trial,” he said. “The notice said the reason for delaying the trial was to ensure the rights of the defendants and their legal benefits as per their lawyers’ request.”
“I met with lawyer Nguyen Thanh Luong, who is defending blogger Ta Phong Tan, at the court and he told me that he had made a request that the appropriate legal procedures be respected, not for a postponement.”
No new date has been set for the trial, he said.
Washington has expressed concerns over Lieng's death and called on Hanoi to release all three bloggers.
The three bloggers are charged with "distorting the truth, denigrating the party and state" for politically critical blogging and for posting hundreds of articles on a banned website known as the "Free Journalists Club" of Vietnam.
Tan, who was a member of Vietnam’s ruling communist party before she became a freelance journalist, frequently blogged about abuses in Vietnam’s legal system.
Phan Thanh Hai, 43, blogged on various issues including territorial disputes with China, environmentally sensitive bauxite-mining projects, a corruption scandal surrounding the state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin, and state harassment of dissidents.
Nguyen Van Hai was first detained in October 2008, after participating in anti-China protests ahead of the Beijing Olympics, and later sentenced to 30 months in jail on allegedly trumped-up tax evasion charges. He was originally scheduled to be released in October 2010.
His case was raised by U.S. President Barack Obama in a statement marking World Press Freedom in May this year.
The three bloggers face a maximum of 20 years in prison, based on the charges under Article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, a draconian provision that prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state.”
In the last three years, authorities in the one-party state have imprisoned more than a dozen prominent bloggers and activists for using the Internet to express their opinions and advance their causes.
Human Rights Watch has accused the government of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent, including by detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.
France-based Reporters Without Borders lists one-party Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.