Authorities in Vietnam have sentenced a French-Vietnamese professor and blogger to three years in prison for “undermining national security,” accusing him of ruining the nation’s image through his critical writings.
At the Ho Chi Minh People’s Court on Wednesday, Judge Vu Phi Long ruled that 56-year-old Pham Minh Hoang, a mathematician of dual nationality, had "blackened the image of the country" by writing articles which criticized the Vietnamese government’s handling of a number of national issues.
Hoang was arrested by Vietnamese police in August last year for having ties to Viet Tan, a U.S.-based party pushing for reforms in Vietnam where it is banned.
Under Vietnamese law, his year of pre-trial detention will count towards his sentence. At the end of his jail term, he will have to serve another three years under house arrest.
Viet Tan has been labeled a terrorist group by the country’s Communist Party. Vietnam is ruled by a one-party political system.
Hoang’s lawyer Tran Vu Hai said that his client had confirmed to the court that he had joined Viet Tan in 1998 while he was living in France as a French citizen.
“Viet Tan was never banned in France. His political activities are legal according to the U.N. Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam ratified,” Hai said.
“However, Vietnam’s authorities think that was against the state of Vietnam. Hoang has returned to Vietnam and became a Vietnamese citizen so he has to respect the opinion given by Vietnam’s prosecution office,” he said.
Hai said that Hoang maintained that his activities in Vietnam and in Malaysia, where he had taken a course on nonviolent resistance allegedly sponsored by Viet Tan after relocating to Vietnam, “were not to overthrow the government of Vietnam.”
He added that the 33 essays attributed to Hoang, written under the penname of Phan Kien Quoc, had not made political waves in the country.
“The authorities did not investigate who Phan Kien Quoc was. Vietnamese scholars did not criticize Phan Kien Quoc. In conclusion, his essays didn’t have a big influence and the government didn’t care much,” Hai said.
Hai said Hoang admitted to police that he wrote the online essays and stored them on his computer, which he voluntarily handed over to police.
“He believes that the essays did not have any content against the state, but were based on the truth and he wrote about what he thinks,” Hai said.
“However, he said that if his essays somehow contribute to less [public] trust in the government then he feels sorry.”
Hoang has said he will appeal the sentence and has asked French authorities to pressure the Vietnamese government to review his sentence.
Reaction to verdict
A Vietnamese citizen who has followed Hoang’s case, but who asked to remain anonymous, called the verdict “unfair.”
“It is like a crackdown, forcing a crime on a democracy and freedom activist. It is unacceptable. I hope international media can help his family,” the supporter said.
“In Vietnam, democracy activists are always accused of ‘plotting to overthrow the government.’”
The Paris-based journalist advocacy group Reporters Without Borders condemned the sentencing in a statement on Wednesday.
“Pham Minh Hoang should not be in prison. He is a citizen who just expressed his views on matters of interest to Vietnam,” the group said.
“His conviction reflects a dangerous trend in Vietnam towards ‘Chinese-style’ censorship.”
Reporters Without Borders said that armed security agents tried to intimidate reporters at Wednesday’s trial and prevent them from reporting on the proceedings.
Free speech targeted
Hoang left Vietnam to study in France in 1973, but returned to his homeland in 2000 to teach mathematics.
He has since written several articles online about education, Vietnamese sovereignty in its relations with China, and against environmental pollution associated with Chinese-run bauxite mines in the Vietnam's Central Highlands.
Vietnamese police said that Hoang and his wife traveled to Malaysia in November to take part in a course on nonviolent struggle organized by Viet Tan before returning to Vietnam to teach a leadership skills course to a group of more than 40 students.
The Vietnamese media said that Hoang had “induced people to join Viet Tan to build forces,” adding that he had confessed and asked for leniency.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tang Dung is believed to have instigated a crackdown on defenders of free speech in the country after recently being given a new five-year term in office.
Eight days ago, a Vietnamese court upheld the sentence of blogger and dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu in an appeal case, while Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest and pro-democracy activist, was returned to jail two weeks ago after a year and a half on medical parole for a brain tumor.
On July 27, Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Nga insisted that “all of the basic rights and freedoms figure in the Vietnamese constitution and in the laws that are below it” and “are respected in practice too,” adding that “no one [in Vietnam] is punished for expressing their opinions.”
Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam 165th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index and listed the country as an “Enemy of the Internet” in a report issued in March this year.
Reported by Gia Minh and Thanh Truc for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.