Detained Vietnamese activist Dinh Nhat Uy who goes on trial Tuesday for “abusing democratic freedoms” should be freed unconditionally, rights groups and his lawyer say, questioning the basis for the charge he faces and the law under which he is accused.
Uy, 30, will be tried at the Long An provincial court under the penal code’s Article 258, a charge the one-party Communist state frequently levels at activists.
He was detained in June after launching a campaign on Facebook calling for the release of his younger brother, 26-year-old Dinh Nguyen Kha, who is serving four years in prison for handing out leaflets criticizing the Vietnamese Communist Party’s policy regarding disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The indictment against Uy alleges that he violated Article 258 after his brother's arrest by posting “bad and false information” criticizing Vietnam’s leaders and speaking out against a government attack on a human rights award.
Uy faces a prison sentence of up to three years if convicted.
His lawyer, Ha Huy Son, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the charge his client faces is baseless.
“In my opinion, with Article 258, the investigators have to prove that the defendant really did cause damage or consequences to an individual or organization—there must be a victim,” he said.
“If they can’t prove this, then there are no grounds to say that Dinh Nhat Uy is guilty. That is the core of article 258.”
Blogger Nguyen Van Thach, who campaigns against China’s claims to the Paracel and Spratley island chains, said Vietnam’s use of Article 258 to silence activists was holding back political progress in the country, calling the indictment against Uy “a joke.”
“They could use [Article 258] when [Vietnam was] still closed to the world, but it is no longer acceptable,” he said.
“They said [Uy] spread fabricated information, vilifying the leaders. This shows the mindset of authoritarians, who always believe that the government is right and above all else—like God.”
Thach said that the Vietnamese people should “have the right” to make public comments on issues that are important to them, just as Uy had spoken out about his brother’s case and government policies that he did not agree with.
“People should have the right to tell the world about corruption and the abuse of power so they can make changes accordingly,” he said.
“If the authorities keep things this way—accusing people of abusing freedom and bringing charges against them—it will be very dangerous for the people and the development of our country.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Monday demanded the “unconditional release” of Uy and called on the Vietnamese government to “revoke” Article 258.
“Vietnam’s escalating use of rights-abusing laws to suppress public criticisms and peaceful protests makes a mockery of its claims to be a rights-respecting state,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Convicting Dinh Nhat Uy for demanding the release of his imprisoned brother and criticizing the government is an outrage, especially since the government is seeking a seat on the U.N.’s highest human rights body.”
Human Rights Watch called Uy’s trial “the latest in a crescendo of proceedings” against Vietnamese political dissidents, with at least 61 being convicted and sentenced to prison so far in 2013, compared to around 40 for all of last year.
“Civil society activists and bloggers in Vietnam see Dinh Nhat Uy’s trial as a government effort to show it can violate human rights at will, even while it seeks a place in the U.N.’s [Human Rights Council]” in elections set for Nov. 12, Robertson said.
“Foreign governments should publicly demand immediate freedom for Dinh Nhat Uy and others imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their internationally-recognized freedoms, or expect to face difficulties during the Human Rights Council elections.”
Uy’s mother, Nguyen Thi Kim Lien, told RFA that her family was distraught over Uy’s case, adding that her son had been treated like a criminal during his arrest and calling on the government to do away with Article 258.
“When they arrested Uy, we did not know about Article 258. After that, I did some research online and found out that the Long An police had ill-treated my son [based on the alleged crime],” she said.
“They arrested him like an international criminal, making him walk on the street so that everybody could see him.”
Lien said that after searching for additional information online, she found that many activists charged under the same Article had undergone treatment far worse than Uy.
“I realized that I had to bring this matter to the world’s attention … so that [Vietnam] will eliminate Article 258,” she said.
Last week, Lien wrote an open letter of invitation calling on her fellow citizens, international agencies in Vietnam, the media, and human rights organizations to attend her son’s public hearing on Tuesday.
“Your presence will not only be an encouragement for the family and Dinh Nhat Uy but also an honor to basic human rights recognized and protected by international law as well as Vietnam’s law,” the letter said.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.