A court in Hanoi sentenced a land rights activist to nearly two years in prison on Tuesday for her role in protesting government-sanctioned evictions that are being used to clear the way for commercial real estate developments in Vietnam.
Can Thi Theu was convicted of causing public disorder and sentenced to 20 months in prison for demonstrations in June that targeted the government for land that was seized in the Duong Noi area on the outskirts of Hanoi, one of her attorneys, Nguyen Kha Thanh, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“The police have to protect the people’s right to petition, but in this case they used plainclothes policemen to arrest and load the petitioners on buses,” said Ha Huy Son, another member of Theu’s defense team.
Theu was arrested by the Hanoi police on June 10 when she and more than 50 other demonstrators gathered at the Ministry of the Environment to tender petitions seeking a solution to the land conflict in Duong Noi village, where her family lives.
It was the second time Theu was convicted for her role in land-grab protests. In 2014 she was sentenced to 15 months in jail for a similar protest.
Vietnam has been experiencing a development boom that is pushing small landholders aside in favor of more lucrative real estate projects.
One of the ‘dan oan’
While all land in Vietnam is held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of snatching valuable plots and paying far too little in compensation to their residents.
“Land confiscation and abuse of rights is a serious problem in Vietnam, so much so that there is a new term in Vietnamese for those losing land to various public and private projects sponsored by the government: Dan oan, literally citizen suffering injustice,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy director, Asia division.
Public protests are illegal in Vietnam, but the land grabs have gotten so out of hand that people risk imprisonment to protest the seizures.
Tuesday brought a replay of earlier land protests, as eyewitnesses told RFA that 200 people were demonstrating outside the Hanoi courthouse.
“We are currently sitting outside,” a farmer from Duong Noi told RFA during the trial. “There are many policemen around here. They have surrounded us.”
Another witness told RFA the demonstrators held banners saying “arresting innocent people is a crime,” and “freedom for Can Thi Theu.”
“Police speak into their loudspeakers, telling us to move away,” that witness said.
“Farmers from other places like Hai Duong, Thanh Oai and Van Giang are also here.”
‘Policemen and their villains’
The government’s reaction was also no different than before, as police rounded up the protestors and loaded them onto buses, and arrested activist Thao Teresa, said Theu’s son Trinh Ba Phoung.
“The government mobilized a lot of policemen to stop us from going to the court,” he told RFA. “This is a serious violation of human rights. We ask international human rights organizations to witness today’s trial because this is an act of violence stemming from police.”
He added: “They crack down on us, and surround us when we hold a peaceful protest. We have to cope with the violence from the policemen and their villains.”
Theu’s conviction comes at a time when Vietnam's human rights record is under new scrutiny. While the country has been pursuing closer ties with the West, particularly the U.S. and the European Union, it has shown little desire to curb authorities’ appetite for jailing and intimidating activists, bloggers and dissidents.
Human Rights Watch’s Robertson said Theu’s conviction is another example of Vietnam’s “systematic denial of the right of peaceful protest.”
"Can Thi Theu is yet another victim of Vietnam's kangaroo courts, where guilt and prison sentences are determined by the ruling party, and there is no respect for fair trial standards or justice,” Robertson said.
“People like Can Thi Theu don't originally choose to become land rights activists, but when they are facing loss of land and livelihood, there is no choice,” he added. “If there was any justice in Vietnam, Thi Theu would be working on her farm in peace, instead of heading to prison after an unjust trial.”
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.