A Vietnamese court sentenced two activists from a Buddhist sect to prison Tuesday for distributing “anti-government” materials, according to relatives and state media.
Nguyen Van Lia and Tran Hoai An were convicted by the People’s Court of Cho Moi District in An Giang province of "abusing democratic freedoms and jeopardizing the security of the state," the official Vietnam News Agency reported Tuesday.
Lia, who is 71 years old, will serve five years and An will serve three.
The two are members of the Hoa Hao Buddhist church and were arrested in April after police found books, CDs and DVDs, and documents criticizing the communist Vietnamese government of violating religious freedom, state media said.
Vietnam recognizes the Hoa Hao, but one sect has broken away and opposes government controls over religion.
Nguyen The Lu, Lia’s youngest son, said Hoa Hao sect members were “unhappy” with the outcome of the trial.
“Local authorities tried to block us from attending the trial,” he said, adding that “as usual, there were lots of police and security stationed around the courthouse.”
Tran Thi Buc Lon, Lia’s wife, said she was unable to attend the trial.
“In the morning, scores of police tried to stop me from going to the trial. I told them that I hadn’t seen my husband for eight months, but they still wouldn’t let me go,” Lon said.
“Even my 90-year-old mother was not permitted. Only my youngest son received an invitation,” she said.
“They wouldn’t even let me sit outside the courthouse.”
Lon said that neither of the men on trial had asked for a lawyer to represent them.
“The court was packed with authorities, so what would be the point? Others from our sect also got the same result, so why bother?”
According to Lu, his father’s health has taken a turn for the worse during his incarceration.
“My father is very weak,” Lu said. “His hands and feet are swollen and completely bruised.”
“We saw him last month and his health had gotten worse. His head had been shaved and he had been tortured for not admitting his ‘crime.’”
Lon said her husband had also been suffering from injuries he received before being taken into custody by police.
“Before he was arrested, he was beaten by a gang and his ribs were broken,” she said.
“We suspect the gang members were actually police, but there has been no investigation into the incident.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Vietnamese authorities to “immediately release the Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Nguyen Van Lia and drop all charges against him,” in a statement released Monday, adding that his sentence was “outrageous and unacceptable.”
“All signs point to religious persecution in this case,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Nguyen Van Lia is mainly known for his advocacy of the Hoa Hao faith, and raising the oppression of this group with foreign diplomats. These are activities fully protected under Vietnam’s international human rights and constitutional obligations.”
Robertson said Lia, who is suffering from high blood pressure and several broken ribs, should be released and allowed to seek medical treatment.
Lia was also sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2003 for commemorating the anniversary of the death of a Hoa Hao Buddhist founder, Human Rights Watch said.
Further information on An was not immediately available.
Human Rights Watch said at least 13 other Hoa Hao members are serving lengthy sentences in Vietnam's jails.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.