UPDATED at 9:45 A.M. EST on 2018-04-06
Judicial authorities in Hanoi handed down harsh jail sentences on Thursday to six Vietnamese activists found guilty of “subversion,” earning the condemnation of rights groups who had called for the charges to be dropped.
Prominent rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, his colleague Le Thu Ha, and citizen journalists Pham Van Troi, Nguyen Trung Ton, Truong Minh Duc, and Nguyen Bac Truyen, were tried for conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the state under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
The statute carries maximum sentences of life imprisonment or capital punishment for those who are convicted.
The six were accused of affiliation with the Brotherhood for Democracy, a group founded by Dai in 2013 to defend human rights and promote democratic ideals in Vietnam. All have campaigned for victims of injustice, advocated for religious freedom, and supported political prisoners and their families.
In all, the activists were sentenced to 66 years in jail and 17 years under house arrest.
Dai was sentenced to 15 years in prison and five years of house arrest, while the others received prison terms ranging from seven to 12 years.
Duc and Ton each received sentences of 12 years in jail and three years of house arrest.
Truyen received an 11-year prison sentence and three years of house arrest. Ha, the only woman in the group, was sentenced to nine years in jail and two years of probation. And Troi received a seven-year sentence and one year of house arrest.
After the trial, Dai’s wife Vu Minh Hanh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that she strongly condemned the sentence.
“They [prosecutors] could not present any specific evidence, only assumptions,” she said by phone.
“The lawyers and my husband had their own defense speeches and questions for the prosecutors, but they could not answer [the questions],” she said. “They could only assume and had no evidence. In the end, they handed down that sentence. This is an unjust and unfair sentence and goes against any justice.’
Nguyen Thi Lanh, wife of Nguyen Trung Ton, told RFA that she saw no justice from the government of Vietnam during the trial.
“They sentenced my husband to 12 years in prison and jailed others even though they are innocent,” she said. “They only fought for the benefit of the people and for the development of our country.”
More than 12 detained
More than a dozen people were detained before the trial, while others were blocked from entering the Hanoi People’s Court, sources said.
Activist Trinh Ba Phuong, who observed the trial from outside the courtroom, told RFA that his mother, brother, and others from Duong Noi village, about 14 kilometers (8.6 miles) southwest of Hanoi, had gathered at Thai Ha Church in the capital before heading to the courthouse along with protesters displaying placards.
But they were followed and stopped by plainclothes police officers, he said.
“This trial was supposed to be open to the public,” Phuong told RFA. “We support the Brotherhood for Democracy so we came here to show our support.”
Police detained about 13 people who tried to attend the trial, including Phuong’s mother and brother, but released all of them around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. local time, he said.
The United States issued a statement on Thursday saying that it was “deeply troubled” by the convictions and called on the Vietnamese government to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and allow people to freely express their views and assemble peacefully.
"Individuals have the right to the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, both online and offline," the statement said. "The United States is deeply concerned by the Vietnamese government's efforts to restrict these rights, through a disturbing trend of increased arrests, convictions, and harsh sentences of peaceful activists."
The U.S. also urged Vietnam to ensure that its actions and laws are consistent with the human rights provisions in its constitution and with its international commitments.
The European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic branch, also issued a statement on Thursday, saying that the convictions continue “a negative trend of prosecuting and sentencing human rights activists and bloggers in Vietnam” and pledged to keep working with authorities and other parties to improve the country’s human rights situation.
The six convicted activists “have peacefully advocated the promotion and protection of human rights as guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the EEAS statement said.
“Their sentences are in direct breach of these international obligations, which Vietnam has itself signed up to, and which the European Union expects full respect for,” it said.
Rights groups weigh in
Rights groups slammed the convictions and called on the government to end its crackdown on activists.
“These sentences are utterly grotesque,” said Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a statement issued Thursday.
“The only crime committed by these Brotherhood for Democracy members was posting articles calling for respect of human rights in Vietnam,” he said. “The severity of the sentences has only one explanation — it was meant to intimidate those who dare to raise issues in the public interest.”
RSF also urged European Union member states to veto a free trade agreement with Vietnam that was supposed to be approved this year and called on the United States in upcoming trade talks to ensure that Vietnamese authorities agree to concrete measures to respect press freedom.
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, told RFA by phone on Thursday that though Vietnam has made promises to its citizens and the international community that it will move towards becoming a more open society, the opposite is occurring.
“Right now the Vietnamese Communist Party and government are cracking down on critics in a way we haven’t seen in many, many years,” he said.
“The number of political cases in the country has increased substantially, but the interesting thing is that more and more people are still willing to challenge the authorities, so this tactic of the government isn’t working to stop people calling for democracy,” he said.
Before the trial, London-based Amnesty International, which called on the government to drop the charges against the six activists, said that at least 97 prisoners of conscience are currently being held in Vietnam’s prisons, where many are subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.
But on Thursday, the government responded, saying there are no prisoners of conscience in the one-party communist country, and that the six convicted activists had violated the country’s law and were tried accordingly.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.