A Vietnamese court sentenced a prominent pro-democracy lawyer to seven years in prison and three years under house arrest Monday for advocating an end to one-party communist rule in the country.
Cu Huy Ha Vu, 53, the son of former communist revolutionary war hero and poet Cu Huy Can, was convicted of conducting propaganda against the state in calling for a multiparty government system and for demanding an end to Communist Party rule.
Judge Nguyen Huu Chinh also found Vu guilty of defaming the state and referring to North Vietnam's war with the U.S. as a Vietnamese civil war.
Vu blasted the authorities in court as the sentence was passed, saying they were on a personal vendetta.
"I did not commit the crime of spreading propaganda against the state," Vu told the court. "This criminal case was invented against me. This case is completely illegal."
But the judge disagreed, saying that despite Vu’s communist pedigree, “he did not sustain that tradition but instead committed erroneous acts.”
During the one-day trial, which was closed to the public with only limited access permitted to foreign media, Judge Chinh ejected one of Cu Huy Ha Vu’s lawyers, and the three remaining members of his defense team walked out in protest.
Ejected lawyer Tran Vu Hai said that ahead of the trial, Vu had asked the court and prosecution to provide him with documents related to his indictment, but no materials were ever produced.
“According to Article 214 of the criminal procedure, they must provide such documents so we know [how to proceed with our defense],” he said.
“At the trial, we voiced our demand but the judge refused and ordered me out of the court. We think the trial didn’t comply with our constitution and the criminal law. With the consent of Cu Huy Ha Vu, we ceased our work at the trial because we could not continue our mission in such a situation.”
The documents in question were 10 news interviews Vu was accused of conducting with foreign media, including an interview with Radio Free Asia, which were used as key evidence against him. The defense had asked the judge to read the documents to the court, but he refused.
Some women are seen stopped outside a Hanoi courthouse as Cu Huy Ha Vu is tried, April 4, 2011. Credit: AFP
Lawyer Tran Dinh Trien, one of the three defense attorneys who left in protest, said that while questioning witnesses, the judge told Vu’s team to stop and proceed to the trial format.
“The jury did not comply with the law. That is why we could not continue to take part in this kind of trial,” he said.
Trien said that the government also had no right to close the trial to the public.
“According to our laws, the people have the right to attend trials. The trial was supposed to be open, but I saw that police were positioned everywhere to stop people from entering.”
Police stopped traffic around the courthouse during the trial and pushed onlookers away. Foreign media were kept in an area outside the main courtroom and made to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television.
Vu’s wife, lawyer Nguyen Thi Duong Ha, said she was watched by a plainclothes officer during the course of the trial and made to sit in a specific area of the courtroom.
She said that as the judge did not comply with the demand that the documents be read in court, the proceedings should have been declared a mistrial.
“If lawyers left without reason, that would be invalid. But since their demand was correct and the judge would not comply, the fault now lies with the judge. And as the lawyers left the trial … because of the judge’s fault, I think the result of the trial is invalid.”
Ha added that her husband’s requests to change the jury, all of whom were members of the Communist Party, and the prosecutor, who Vu had once brought suit against in the past, were both rejected.
“I think the trial today seriously violated our criminal laws and criminal procedures,” she said.
“I am sad because … my husband did not commit any crime. I was his lawyer but my right to represent him was illegally deprived by the court. If they had complied with the law, my husband would have been acquitted.”
The authorities raided a hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City on Nov. 5 and arrested Vu shortly after he filed a follow-up lawsuit against the prime minister for allegedly violating laws on environmental protection, national security, and cultural heritage by approving Chinese-built bauxite mining projects in the Central Highlands.
Vu was accused of distributing propaganda documents against the one-party communist state and of calling for a multiparty system and "maligning and defaming" the Communist Party and government leaders, state media reported.
He was also accused of having ties with government critics inside the country and unspecified "hostile forces" from outside.
Ha Van Thinh, a history professor and blogger from Vietnam’s Hue province, called Vu’s sentence “too harsh,” adding that under the country’s judicial system it would have been “impossible” to acquit him.
“I think they should have sought an average, assuming his sentence could be anywhere from two to 12 years. The average of two and 12 is seven years. This sentence [as handed down] is hard to accept,” he said.
Thinh suggested that a form of re-education or mild discipline may have been more appropriate.
“According to our current legal system, it is impossible to acquit him, but the sentence is also unacceptable and may lead to serious consequences,” he said.
“The litigation process was terrible and disappointing. ‘Freedom and democracy’ are just clichés here. There is no such thing as democracy and freedom in Vietnam.”
Phan Van Song, a retired law professor living in Poitiers, France, said he was unsurprised by the sentencing.
“In the past they have also imprisoned bloggers and other dissidents like Do Nam Hai, Le Thi Cong Nhan, and Nguyen Van Dai. Vu’s sentence is a sentence aimed at all democracy activists in Vietnam,” he said.
“Lawyers around the world—people in Vietnam, the U.S., France … must prove that Vietnam lacks law and democracy. Dissidents don’t propagandize against the state. This is a despotic country. We have seen despotic countries collapse in North Africa. They also used to arrest dissidents.”
Reported by Khanh An, Quynh Chi, and Do Hieu for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Hanh Seide. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.