A court in southern Vietnam on Thursday sentenced two young activists to several years in prison for distributing “anti-government” leaflets, in a trial relatives and rights groups condemned as unfair and aimed at silencing dissent in the one-party state.
University student Nguyen Phuong Uyen, 21, was sentenced to six years in prison, while computer repairman Dinh Nguyen Kha, 25, was given eight years in prison that will be added to a previous two-year sentence from a separate case.
The Long An provincial court found them guilty of spreading “propaganda against the state” over leaflets they had handed out in Ho Chi Minh City last year while protesting against China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea.
They were convicted under Article 88 of the penal code, a provision rights groups say the government has used to muzzle dissent, and both will serve three years of house arrest following their prison terms.
'Not a crime'
The defendants’ family members and lawyers said Uyen and Kha had not acted against the state and that the punishments against them were too harsh.
“My son did not do anything against the communist party, only against corruption,” Kha’s mother Nguyen Thi Kim Lien told RFA’s Vietnamese Service after the trial.
“I don’t see how he was opposed to the government, or the people. I see no article in our constitution or our laws saying that he committed a crime.”
Kha, who was sentenced by a Tan An city court in September to two years in prison for “intention to cause injury,” has also been investigated by police in connection with “terrorist” activities.
Uyen’s father, whose first name is Linh, said her punishment was a violation of human rights.
“She exercised her right to free expression, but was charged with propaganda against the state,” said Linh, who was barred from attending the trial.
Patriotic Youth League
According to their indictment, Uyen and Kha distributed leaflets signed by overseas opposition group the Patriotic Youth League which accused the communist party of allowing China to take over the country by occupying its islands and exploiting its natural resources.
The Patriotic Youth League—a group of students, artists, and young professionals who promote social justice and human rights in Vietnam and which is banned in the country—had in the leaflets urged people “to take to the streets” against the communists.
Plagued by errors
Uyen’s lawyer Ha Huy Son said that proceedings in the case had been plagued by “a lot of errors,” including the court’s omission of evidence and that its verdict failed to take into account the defense lawyers’ arguments.
“All three of us lawyers said our clients did not commit crimes according to Article 88 of the penal code, but [the court] did not listen,” he told RFA.
The case has drawn online support from Vietnamese activists, with university students writing petitions for Uyen’s release since her official arrest in October after she had been missing for two weeks.
Barred from attending
Supporters gathered outside the court on Thursday were barred from attending the trial, as were some of the defendants’ relatives.
“According to law, people are allowed to attend the trial and everybody has that freedom,” Uyen’s father said.
“But in this trial, even the defendants’ closest family members were not allowed to attend the trial, let alone Uyen’s supporters.”
The Rev. Dinh Huu Thoai, who had gathered with other activists outside the court, said supporters had been met by a large number of security personnel.
“They said this is a public trial, but the security forces and police intimidated people who tried to attend,” he said.
Ahead of the trial, New York-based Human Rights Watch had appealed for the immediate release of the two defendants, saying Vietnam should stop using “politically controlled” courts to convict government critics.
“Putting people on trial for distributing leaflets critical of the government is ridiculous and shows the insecurity of the Vietnamese government,” the group’s Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch also noted that it was unclear why Kha, given his previous conviction in late September, would have been free —according to the indictment—to distribute leaflets in October.
Reported by An Nhien and An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.