Lawyers for a top Vietnamese dissident whose appeal against a harsh jail sentence was turned down Tuesday accused the court of hindering the defense case, suggesting that it had arrived at the verdict even before the one-day trial began.
In a hearing held amid tight security in Hanoi, the court upheld the sentence of seven years in prison and three years of house arrest imposed on Cu Huy Ha Vu, 53, in April for trying to topple the one-party communist government in Vietnam.
Vu has been detained since November after twice attempting to sue Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for abuse of power.
Tran Quoc Thuan, one of four defense attorneys, said Vu’s team had initially been allowed to speak during the day-long trial, but that nearly two-thirds of their arguments had been “cut short” by court officials.
“The verdict today had been known in advance: that Cu Huy Ha Vu’s previous verdict would be upheld,” he said.
Thuan said all four lawyers had urged that the trial end and Vu be released.
“There was no evidence of violations—he did not commit any violations of the law,” Thuan said.
“Regrettably, every lawyer was reminded—actually was threatened—by the Chairman of the Court, with something like a warning that we could be expelled from the court,” he said.
“[But] Vu’s attitude showed him to be firm.”
During Vu’s conviction in April, the judge ejected one of Vu’s lawyers who had argued for a mistrial because the prosecution had never provided them with documents related to Vu’s indictment. The three remaining members of Vu’s defense team walked out in protest.
Foreign media were not allowed access to the proceedings, but a foreign journalist who watched the day-long appeal unfold on a closed-circuit television told AFP that Vu accused Dung of ordering the Ministry of Public Security to target him as retribution for the lawsuits.
"There are revenge reasons here," Vu told the court, according to the foreign journalist.
Vu said that he was innocent, adding that he did not oppose the Communist Party—only its leadership.
"My purpose is to protect my country's interests ... I am ready to go to prison," he said.
The court was surrounded by uniformed and plainclothes security and a group of Vu’s supporters, including his younger sister Cu Thi Xuan Bich, stood outside the perimeter with signs proclaiming Vu’s innocence.
“My brother, a patriot, goes on trial, but I’m being blocked from coming in. I have to remain outside,” Bich said during the proceedings.
Later, reports suggested that Vu’s supporters were being targeted outside the courtroom and that Vu’s sister was forcibly removed from the area.
“I saw Xuan Bich being beaten by a group of people. She looked hurt and she was thrown out,” said a witness near the courthouse.
AFP said three city buses were parked outside the court to deal with people in the event of mass arrests.
Meanwhile, the U.S. expressed concern over the court’s decision, urging the Vietnamese government to immediately release Vu.
"We are very concerned by the denial of activist Cu Huy Ha Vu's appeal," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday.
"We continue to urge the government of Vietnam to immediately release Mr. Vu as well as all other prisoners of conscience and believe that no individual should be imprisoned for exercising the right to free speech," Toner said.
The rejection of Vu’s appeal follows the re-arrest last week of Catholic priest and democracy activist Nguyen Van Ly who had been earlier granted medical parole from prison for the treatment of a brain tumor.
Arrest and trial
The authorities raided a hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City on Nov. 5 and arrested Vu shortly after he filed a follow-up lawsuit against the prime minister for allegedly violating laws on environmental protection, national security, and cultural heritage by approving Chinese-built bauxite mining projects in the Central Highlands.
Vu was accused of distributing propaganda documents against the one-party communist state and of calling for a multiparty system and "maligning and defaming" the Communist Party and government leaders, state media reported.
The son of former communist revolutionary war hero and poet Cu Huy Can, Vu was also accused of having ties with government critics inside the country and unspecified "hostile forces" from outside.
The London-based Amnesty International called Vu’s conviction “a sham trial, with the presumption of innocence and right to a defense completely ignored,” adding that Vu was a prisoner of conscience and calling for his immediate release.
Ahead of the appeals trial, the New York-based Human Rights Watch had called on Vietnam “to correct the serious due process violations during Dr. Vu’s trial in April and ensure that his appeal is in full accordance with fair trial standards.”
“Dr. Vu was jailed for political reasons in a trial that violated his rights,” the group said.
The appeal hearing came one week after Dung was formally named to a second term as prime minister, which activists say likely signals a tougher climate for Vietnam’s dissidents.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.