A Vietnamese court on Thursday reduced the jail sentences of four activists convicted on charges of plotting to overthrow the government but upheld those of four others, a lawyer said, while a banned opposition group they were said to have links with called for their immediate release.
The People’s Court of Vinh city in Nghe An province heard the appeals of eight defendants from a group of 13 Catholics, bloggers, and students who had been jailed following a trial on Jan. 8-9, as supporters were blocked from viewing the proceedings and, according to some reports, detained.
Three of the appellants—including Ho Van Oanh, Nguyen Van Duyet, and Nguyen Xuan Anh —had their jail terms reduced by between six months and two-and-a-half years, while prominent Catholic blogger Paulus Le Van Son had his 13-year sentence cut to four years, according to lawyer Ha Huy Son.
“Four people's sentences were upheld while those of four others were adjusted,” lawyer Son told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“The four adjusted sentences include Le Van Son to four years in prison and four years of probation, Nguyen Van Duyet to three-and-a-half years in prison and four years' probation, Nguyen Xuan Anh to two years in prison with no probation, and Ho Van Oanh to two-and-a-half years in prison with no probation.”
Duyet had originally been sentenced to four years, while Anh and Oanh had both received three years in prison.
“The four others—Ho Duc Hoa, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Tran Minh Nhat, and Thai Van Dung—had their sentences upheld, though Nhat no longer faces probation after his jail time is completed,” Son said.
The lawyer said that the court had disregarded nearly all of the recommendations by the defendants’ legal team during the appeal hearing, though he granted that “some progress had been made” compared to the previous trial.
“They did adjust sentences. They also listened to the lawyer's opinions—they did not limit arguments at this trial,” he said.
“However we were unsatisfied with some opinions raised at the trial. For example, [the court] maintained that any request for pluralism or a multiparty system is a violation of the law and that nonviolent protest is a crime.”
The group of eight defendants were initially convicted—along with five others who did not appeal Thursday—under Article 79 of the Penal Code for their involvement with Viet Tan, an opposition group considered a terrorist organization in one-party Vietnam.
Family members and supporters of the eight on trial Thursday said security personnel had blocked them from entering the court and arrested an unknown number of people.
A relative of one of the defendants, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said he had been barred from the hearing and that loudspeakers broadcasting the trial outside the courtroom had the sound intentionally lowered to prevent the crowd from hearing what was taking place.
“Even if they had let me in, there might have been nothing to see. They usually just let defendants say some last words and then deliver the verdicts,” he said.
“The loudspeakers were not loud enough to hear. When the prosecutor talked, they made them loud, but when the defendants or [defense] lawyers said something, they made them low.”
Another witness outside the court said that ahead of the trial plainclothes policemen had arrived outside the court and taken posters expressing support from the family members of the defendants.
“When the trial started, they sent a lot of police there to chase people away and blocked all access to the court. They wouldn’t let people stand nearby, except for scores of policemen,” the witness told RFA.
“The trial ended around 5:00 p.m. The family members were all very sad. Now people are gathering to ask the police to release [supporters] they arrested, including Minh Hang, Dan, and Thuy Nga. They are going to Nghe An provincial police office to do that.”
The witness provided no further details about detentions outside the court.
Viet Tan was quick to dismiss the reduction in sentences as an attempt by the Vietnamese government to deflect international and grassroots pressure over the continued jailing of the eight dissidents, calling for them to be “immediately released.”
“These eight human rights defenders continue to face harsh prison terms for their peaceful political advocacy,” the opposition party said in a statement Thursday.
Last month, Viet Tan said the eight had faced various deprivations and abuses in jail, including assault and having their medicine withheld.
“Since detaining these human rights defenders in 2011, the Hanoi regime has yet to show how these activists actually harmed the country’s interests or engaged in any activity that could be considered illegal under international standards,” the group said in Thursday’s statement.
Viet Tan said the leaders of Vietnam “should be embarrassed” for silencing citizen bloggers who take part in nonviolent civic action.
“That’s why the authorities conducted today’s trial behind closed doors, prevented international observers from attending the proceedings, and even roughed up family members of the defendants outside the court.”
In a statement ahead of Thursday’s appeal, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the latest trial showed how the Vietnamese government refuses its people the right to freedom of expression.
“The People’s Supreme Court should try something new and different by breaking with the orders it receives from its political overseers and vacating the judgment against these eight activists,” he said.
“The hubris and hypocrisy of Vietnam’s leaders is really on display as the government imprisons people for exercising their rights, yet also somehow inexplicably believes it deserves serious consideration for a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2014-2017 term.”
Vietnamese authorities have come under fire from human rights groups and some Western governments for jailing and harassing dozens of activists, bloggers, and citizen journalists since stepping up a crackdown on protests and freedom of expression online in recent years.
This year alone, at least 38 activists have been convicted of anti-state activity—many under Article 88, which rights groups and press freedom watchdogs say is a vaguely worded provision used by Hanoi to silence dissent.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.