Vietnamese authorities have sentenced two people to jail for up to a year following bloody clashes with police over a land dispute that highlighted alleged police brutality and religious persecution.
In another case, three labor activists were ordered jailed for up to nine years for "causing public disturbance," reflecting what some rights groups said was Hanoi's increasing intolerance to worker rights.
The convictions, together with the arrest of two bloggers over the past week, came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepared to fly to Hanoi for a high profile regional summit.
She came under pressure from human rights and other groups to tell Vietnam to clean up its human rights record and not to harass people who peacefully demand accountability and respect for basic rights.
On Oct. 27, a court in Da Nang in central Vietnam ordered Nguyen Huu Minh to be jailed for 12 months, accusing him of leading a May funeral protest that sparked clashes between villagers and the police.
He was among six people held without trial by police over the protests, triggered by a land dispute that erupted between local Catholics and authorities in Con Dau in Da Nang early this year.
The government decided to demolish all the houses in the parish to make way for a tourist resort, resulting in complaints of inadequate compensation and relocation problems.
A particularly coveted area is a 10-hectare (25-acre) cemetery, located one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the parish church and believed to be 135 years old.
The court ignored a last minute appeal by key Vietnamese church leader Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop to delay the trial of his parishioners "until all questions are answered."
"Torture in detentions"
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a religious watchdog set up by U.S. law, had called for their unconditional release, saying its staff conducted interviews with Con Dau residents within the last month and found "credible evidence of intimidation, harassment, restrictions on peaceful religious ceremonies, and torture in detention."
A woman, Phan Thi Nhan, got nine months in jail for "throwing dirty stuff" at police during the cemetery clashes at the funeral of an 82-year-old woman. Police prevented the burial because the land was to be transferred to make way for the eco-tourism project.
Four others, also convicted for alleged offenses at the funeral protests, were given suspended nine-month jail sentences—they will be released and placed under probation.
Witnesses at the one-day trial, where the accused were not allowed to choose their own lawyers, said the court room was packed with hundreds of villagers and a battery of reporters.
"The lawyers are appointed by the court. But all know that the verdicts are all pre-designed," one witness said.
A lawyer argued and presented evidence that Nguyen Huu Minh was not even present at the funeral protest, but the evidence was disregarded, the witness said.
“The rule of law in Vietnam is an illusion,” said Scott Flipse, deputy Director of the USCIRF. “The U.S. should consider putting conditions on our economic relationship so that progress is not paid for by the blood and tears of Vietnamese citizens," he said.
The commission urged Clinton "to raise these cases when she talks with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi,” Flipse said.
The Vietnamese government has denied any injuries in what it terms a land dispute, describing accounts of mistreatment as an attempt to "smear Vietnam."
In the labor rights court case in the Tra Vinh provincial court in southern Vietnam, three labor activists were sentenced to jail for between nine and seven years for “causing public disturbance."
Among other charges, they were accused of inciting a workers’ strike at the My Phong factory in January 2010.
"Abusing democratic freedoms"
One of the activists, Doan Huy Chuong, is a founding member of the unofficial United Workers-Farmers Organization (UWFO) and previously spent 18 months in prison between 2007 and 2008 for "abusing democratic freedoms," Amnesty International said.
Vietnam bans independent labor organisations, while trade unions are under strict government control.
Some considered the jail term for the labor activists as stiff compared to the terms given villagers convicted over the funeral protests linked to the land dispute.
"While the six villagers should never have been arrested in the first place, the relatively short sentences handed down to the Con Dau parishioners shows that the Vietnamese authorities—after violently suppressing a peaceful burial ceremony—want to avoid increased international condemnation regarding religious abuses," said Duy Hoang, spokesman for Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party banned in Vietnam.
"There are growing voices in the U.S. Congress calling on the State Department to designate Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" based on a series of religious violations, including the events at the Con Dau parish in Da Nang," he said.
"On the other hand, the Vietnamese authorities have underscored their paranoia regarding losing political control by persecuting numerous bloggers, labor activists, and political advocates in recent months.
"Hanoi is making a bet that the outside world will tolerate 'rule by law' in Vietnam," said Duy Hoang.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet-Long. Additional reporting and written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.