In a case that has captured international attention, Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh was sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday for posts on his Ba Sam blog site that were critical of the government.
The former police officer and son of a late government minister who is better known as Anh Ba Sam was convicted on a charge of abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state under Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code.
His assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy was given three years in prison on the same charge. The two had been in prison since their arrests in May 2014.
After the one-day trial, Tran Quoc Thuan, an attorney representing the defendants, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that it was obvious that the fix was in as the prosecution suddenly presented evidence that wasn’t in the investigative report and the sentences handed out were extraordinarily long.
“The prosecutor gave very weak evidence which was countered by defense lawyers, and the prosecutor could not answer our arguments,” he told RFA. “But the most surprising thing of the trial is that they gave Vinh five years in prison, which is almost the maximum.”
None of the circumstances that usually mitigate a sentence were considered when the judge sent the pair to prison, he said.
“Nguyen Huu Vinh was decorated. His father was a revolutionary, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy’s child is small, but they still gave her a three year sentence, which is merciless,” he said.
Judge Nguyen Van Pho said the bloggers’ writings "distort the lines and policies of the party and law of the state, vilify individuals," the Associated Press reported.
The writings "present a one-sided and pessimistic view, causing anxiety and worry, and affecting the people's confidence" in the party and government and "go against the interests of the nation," he said.
In 2007, Nguyen Huu Vinh opened up the Ba Sam blog, and he later launched two other blogs, that provided links to news on political, social, economic, and cultural issues from state media as well as activists.
Prosecutors said the two blogs posted 2,397 articles and generated more than 3.7 million hits, and that 24 of the articles had "untruthful and groundless content which tarnishes the country's image."
Both maintained their innocence throughout the day-long trial, with Thuy telling the court that she did not know who authored the writings or who posted them on the two blogs and that she did not commit any crime.
Communist Vietnam, where all media are state-run, brooks little dissent, and rights groups identify Article 258 as one of the vague legal provisions that authorities have been using to detain and jail dozens of writers and bloggers over the last two years.
"Freedom for Ba Sam"
While the trial was going on inside the Hanoi courtroom, dozens of supporters gathered outside chanting support for the bloggers.
Teresa Thao, an activist who was outside the court, estimated that there were about 200 people protesting the trial.
“They all shouted: “Freedom for Minh Thuy. Freedom for Ba Sam,” she said.
The police presence outside the courthouse was heavy as many representatives from foreign embassies were blocked from entering and authorities packed the courtroom with a hand-picked audience, witnesses told RFA.
“We are all here outside the court,” said Can Thi Theu, who was there to show solidarity with the bloggers . “We and all the foreign reporters can’t get in. I see many people who support Ba Sam and Minh Thuy here. Policemen and security forces have surrounded us.”
Foreign media and diplomats were allowed to follow the proceedings via closed-circuit TV in a separate room, AP reported.
Others weren’t so lucky as police detained many outside the court including two independent candidates for parliament. Nguyen Quang A and Nguyen Dinh Ha, both bloggers and candidates, were detained, according to eye-witness reports
“I just saw about 20 plainclothes policemen take Nguyen Quang A away,” blogger Bach Hong Quyen told RFA.
Authorities said all those detained were released later that day.
Their trial was originally scheduled for Jan. 19, but it was postponed on the eve of the five-yearly congress of the ruling Communist Party.
International human rights groups and Western governments including the United States have criticized Vietnam for jailing dissidents. Hanoi denies this, saying only those who break the law are put behind bars.
U.S. officials have said Vietnam has made some progress in its human rights record with fewer arrests, but more needs to be done if the country wants to expand ties with its former foes.
Amnesty International called the convictions “a shameful abdication of the country’s human rights obligations," and the Committee to Protect Journalists said Vietnam was violating international treaties designed to protect a free press.
"Today's harsh convictions of bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are inconsistent with Vietnam's obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative.
"If Vietnam wants to be viewed as a responsible member of the international community and a reliable partner in multilateral agreements, these bogus anti-state convictions must stop immediately."
Reported for RFA's Vietnamese Service by Mac Lam. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.