Vietnamese authorities are pressuring supporters of activist Le Quoc Quan not to attend his trial beginning Wednesday as rights groups and fellow dissidents urged the government to drop what they called “politically motivated” charges against the lawyer.
Several activist bloggers and supporters told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that they plan to attend the Hanoi court hearing of Quan, 41, in a bid to “sound an alarm” over his tax evasion charges, which carry a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment and a severe fine.
But they said that in several cases, local governments had sent staff to their homes to persuade them not to attend the trial or face “difficulties,” without elaborating.
On Tuesday morning, despite heavy rains, police and plainclothes officers in Quan’s home province of Nghe An “monitored activities and stopped people from leaving for the trial,” members of the jailed lawyer’s family said.
They said that police had stopped a bus carrying several of Quan’s relatives to Hanoi, some 150 miles (230 kilometers) north of Nghe An, for the trial and searched people’s belongings before forcing it to return home.
In Hanoi, bloggers Phuong Bich and Nguyen Huu Vinh, and dissident Pham Hong Son, said they were prevented from leaving their homes by the authorities.
Phuong Bich said that she told the authorities monitoring her that people should be allowed access to the court because “tax evasion is a bad crime which needs to be condemned.”
She said that they eventually relented “since they could not argue [that point] with me, [so] they told me not to gather with other people in public.”
“[F]or a murder case they don’t tell people not to go [to the court], so why now are they telling people not to,” she asked.
“[T]hey won’t stop everyone, but they will try anyway to block people from going to the trial … They will block all roads leading to the trial in an attempt to prevent any crowd of people near the court.”
Vinh said that because of Quan’s trial he was forced to “receive an unwelcome group” at his home, which he added was “normal, whenever there is any event such as a protest or a gathering for democracy awareness.”
“Even though they said this trial is open to the public, people representing the Women’s Union, the National Front, and the Youth League [wings of the ruling Communist party] came to my house to persuade me not to go to it,” he said.
“I told them I didn’t need their advice. I only need an official document saying that I’m not allowed to go to the trial. I am over 50 years old—I know what to do, and I do what is allowed by the law … They could not argue with me and left.”
‘A way to deal with him’
Quan, an outspoken blogger and rights advocate, has vowed to defend himself to the hilt against the tax evasion charges that international rights groups contend are part of a government campaign against the critic.
He was arrested in December 2012, days after writing an article criticizing Article 4 of Vietnam’s constitution, which gives the Communist Party the leading role in the country’s affairs. He had previously blogged prolifically about human rights, democracy, religious freedom, and other issues.
Court authorities postponed the trial for Quan—who was also active in protests over China’s actions over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea—in July after the presiding judge “fell sick suddenly and had to be hospitalized,” rescheduling it for Wednesday.
Phuong Bich said that even though tax authorities “could not find anything wrong” after investigating Quan’s finances during the past two years, as an outspoken dissident lawyer “the government has to find a way to deal with him.”
“They put him in jail, preventing him from speaking with anyone, and now they have to put him on trial … [M]any rich people in Vietnam avoid billions of dong (tens of thousands of U.S. dollars) in taxes and no one is ever imprisoned. But even though Quan’s case had not yet been concluded, they still put him in jail,” she said.
“Not only because of this trial, but other similar ones as well, the people’s anger is increasing. I think anybody who sees injustice will raise their voice now, even though they know the result might not come right away.”
Tax charges ‘not new’
Vinh said Quan’s is “a political case disguised as a tax evasion case,” which he said is “not new in Vietnam, given our political mechanism.”
He pointed to the 2010 arrest of prominent rights lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu who was picked up by police in Ho Chi Minh City and accused of soliciting a prostitute before being sentenced to seven years in prison for distributing anti-state propaganda leaflets the following year.
Blogger Nguyen Van Hai—also known as Dieu Cay—was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2008 on a tax evasion conviction before he was handed a 12-year jail term, on the day of his expected release, for “conducting propaganda against the state,” Vinh said.
“Le Quoc Quan and his family do not deserve to be treated like this … We request that Quan be treated and tried fairly—equally, like in any other case,” he said.
“[The authorities] need to make it clear—is this an economic or a political case? They can’t just use any reason to terrorize a democracy activist.”
Quan, whose case has been monitored by the U.S. and the EU, as well as several international rights groups, also drew support from New York-based Human Rights Watch Tuesday, which called on the Vietnamese government to “drop politically motivated charges” against the lawyer.
The rights group also urged Vietnam’s donors to “communicate serious concerns about Hanoi’s ongoing crackdown on rights defenders and bloggers, and publicly call for the unconditional release of Le Quoc Quan and other peaceful critics.”
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that Quan’s only apparent crime “is to be an effective public critic of the Vietnamese government.”
“The Vietnamese government appears to be so nervous about its position in society that it is reflexively finding ways to silence and imprison dissident after dissident,” Adams said.
“Hanoi should realize that government critics reflect a large and growing body of opinion in the country that it is time for Vietnam to become a genuine multiparty democracy in which free speech is tolerated. These voices will not be silenced by such heavy-handed tactics.”
Reported by Thanh Quang for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.