United Nations officials and Vietnamese civil society groups on Friday denounced the severity of a jail term handed down to a prominent human rights activist and blogger earlier this week.
On Tuesday, Tran Thi Nga, 40, was sentenced by a court in northern Vietnam’s Ha Nam province to nine years’ imprisonment and five years’ house arrest for “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, a provision frequently used to silence dissident bloggers and other activists.
Her sentence comes less than one month after another activist and blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, was jailed for 10 years under the same statute for “spreading propaganda against the state” through her Facebook posts and interviews with U.S. news services.
Liz Throssell, spokesperson of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, said both bloggers were sentenced after flawed judicial proceedings.
“Over the last six months, at least seven other human rights defenders have been arrested and faced prosecution, several dozen are currently detained, and two have been deported or sent into exile abroad,” Throssell said, as reported by Voice of America.
“Many others have been intimidated, harassed and brutally beaten,” she said. “Human rights defenders should never be treated as criminals who are a threat to national security.”
Throssell told VOA that both the high commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and international human rights groups have denounced Article 88 whose provisions they consider “too vague and in breach of international human rights law and, therefore, amounting to criminalization of the exercise of fundamental rights, such as the freedom of expression.”
She also said the high commissioner has expressed his concerns to Vietnamese authorities, but received no response.
Nga was arrested in January, about three months after the arrest of Quynh. Her husband and relatives were not allowed to attend the trial.
Nga’s relatives told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Thursday that they went to the detention center where the activist is being held to see her in accordance with Vietnamese law.
The prison superintendent, however, did not allow them to meet with her as a punishment for Nga being what he called a “hard-headed prisoner determined to fight them to the end.”
They also said Nga was not allowed to receive food and money they brought for her.
The condemnation by the high commissioner comes a day after nearly 20 independent Vietnamese civil society groups and Germany’s human rights representative in Hanoi denounced Nga’s prison sentence.
In a statement issued on Thursday, 19 organizations and dozens of Vietnamese around the world said Nga’s trial was not as public as the Vietnamese government had said it was, and that the legal proceedings were not in accordance with the country’s current law.
They also called on the government to release her immediately, saying that the evidence used to prosecute her was ambiguous, and that the sentence handed down to her was “a mockery of justice.”
The same day, Bärbel Kofler, Germany’s commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid, said in a statement that she was “shocked by the very harsh sentence of nine years’ imprisonment” given to Nga.
“Tran Thi Nga used peaceful means to combat corruption and arbitrary actions and assist victims of the justice system, [and] promote employment rights and environmental protection,” she said.
Kofler also noted that Nga’s sentence is not in line with legal reforms that the Vietnamese government is carrying out, and as in the case of Quynh’s prison term, goes against the principles of human rights recognized by Vietnam.
“Just like in the case of Mother Mushroom, a well-known Vietnamese blogger who was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment less than a month ago due to her work to promote human rights, this sentence contradicts the human rights principles recognized by Vietnam and violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Vietnam has acceded,” she said.
“The Vietnamese constitution also protects freedom of opinion and the press,” she said.
“The disproportionately harsh conviction runs counter to the reforms to promote the rule of law undertaken by the Vietnamese government,” Kofler said. “Furthermore, with this step, Vietnam is carelessly putting its reputation as a state open to reform and modernization at risk.”
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius expressed deep concern that the court sentenced Nga under the vague charge of “propaganda against the state,” and called on the government to release her and other prisoners of conscience and allow them to express their views freely and assemble freely without fear of retribution.
“All people have the right to the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and of peaceful assembly,” he said in a statement. “We have seen some positive steps on human rights in Vietnam over the past few years. However, the trend of increased arrests, convictions, and harsh sentences of peaceful activists since early 2016 is deeply troubling.”
Osius also urged the government to ensure that its actions and laws are consistent with the human rights provisions of Vietnam’s constitution and its international obligations and commitments.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.