HO CHI MINH CITY — A court in southern Vietnam jailed three bloggers Monday for “anti-state propaganda” at a brief but dramatic hearing, prompting calls from the United States and EU for their immediate release.
After a trial lasting just a few hours, high-profile blogger Nguyen Van Hai, alias Dieu Cay, was sentenced to 12 years in prison, while Ta Phong Tan, a policewoman-turned-dissident whose mother self-immolated to protest her detention, was given 10 years and led from court screaming.
“Their crimes were especially serious with clear intention against the state,” said Nguyen Phi Long, president of the court in Ho Chi Minh City.
He added the pair had “caused disorder” in the court and so were not allowed to make closing statements. “They must be seriously punished,” he said.
Phan Thanh Hai, the only one of the trio to plead guilty, was handed a four-year term after promising the court “not to commit the crime again and to have no further contact with anti-state people.”
Tan, whose mother died after setting herself on fire in front of a local authority building in July in a desperate denunciation of the charges against her daughter, was led out of the court wailing.
The 43-year-old, who was wearing a red T-shirt and looked calm but unhappy during proceedings, broke down after the verdict and was heard shouting “objection!” as she was escorted to a waiting car and driven away.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called on the Vietnamese government to release the “prisoners of conscience” and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressed her “serious concern”.
They were charged with conducting propaganda against the one-party communist state under Article 88 of the criminal code, which rights groups say is one of many “vaguely defined articles” regularly used to prosecute dissidents.
The case relates to political articles on banned Vietnamese website “Free Journalists Club” as well as their postings on their own blogs, denouncing corruption and injustice and criticising Hanoi’s foreign policy.
— House arrest after prison sentences —
All of the defendants will also have to serve between three and five years under house arrest after they complete their prison sentences.
In a speech that was curtailed when the audio feed from the courtroom to an observation room for diplomats and journalists was cut off, Nguyen Van Hai said he had never been against the communist state.
“I just feel frustrated by injustice, corruption, dictatorship which does not represent the state but some individuals.
“According to Vietnamese laws, citizens have the right to freedom of speech and it is in accordance with international treaties to which Vietnam is party,” he said before the sound was cut.
But court president Long said the trio had “abused the popularity of the Internet to post articles which undermined and blackened (Vietnam’s) leaders, criticising the (Communist) party (and) destroying people’s trust in the state.”
A lawyer acting for Nguyen Van Hai, whose plight has been highlighted by US President Barack Obama, attacked the proceedings, telling AFP that the court “did not allow discussions between lawyers and prosecutors.”
“I told the court that Nguyen Van Hai is innocent. So it is not fair to judge and condemn him under Article 88,” Ha Huy Son said after the verdict was announced.
A source at the Ho Chi Minh City court where the trial took place told AFP on condition of anonymity that Nguyen Van Hai and Tan “rejected totally” the charges against them and would likely appeal.
Rights groups have repeatedly called for the release of the three bloggers.
The long jail terms are “absolutely outrageous,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Deputy Director, adding that they “show how deep-seated the Vietnam government crackdown on basic human rights really is”.
Private media are banned and all newspapers and television channels are state-run in the authoritarian country.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 172 out of 179 countries in its 2011-2012 press freedom index and identified it as an “Enemy of the Internet” because of systematic use of cyber-censorship.
Vietnam Under Fire Over Jailings
Three bloggers of a banned website get jail terms for ‘anti-state propaganda.’
Updated at 5:30 p.m. EST on 2012-09-24
Three bloggers in Vietnam, who spoke out on corruption in the one party state, were sentenced Monday to between four and 12 years in prison for “anti-state propaganda” in court convictions criticized by the U.S. government and international human rights groups.
Vietnamese authorities, accused of maintaining some of the harshest media controls in Asia, detained family members and supporters of the three as well as a dozen other bloggers to keep them out of the hearing held in a Ho Chih Minh city court.
Nguyen Van Hai, an outspoken blogger and citizen journalist who was a founding member of the banned ‘Free Journalists Club’ website, was given the harshest sentence —12 years in prison —for political blogging that included hundreds of articles posted online.
“He pleaded innocent and I requested his release, but the court would not accept such a result,” his lawyer Ha Huy Son told Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese service, adding that none of the bloggers’ relatives had been present at the hearing.
Fellow blogger Ta Phong Tan was sentenced to 10 years in prison while Phanh Thanh Hai received four years.
The trio, who had written on the Free Journalists Club citizen journalism website criticizing human rights abuses, corruption and foreign policy in Vietnam, were convicted on charges of “conducting propaganda” against the one-party communist state.
Outside the hearing
Outside the courtroom, hundreds of police surrounded the building to bar supporters from approaching the hearing, which lasted from 8:00 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
Nguyen Van Hai’s ex-wife Duong Thi Tan told RFA she was detained Monday morning and held in a police station in Ho Chi Minh City’s Ward 6, District 3 until after the hearing was over.
The couple’s son, Nguyen Tri Dung, was also detained and their daughter was prevented from leaving her home by secret police, according to the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR).
At least a dozen bloggers were taken into custody just before the hearing, according to the group.
Two vans with phone-jamming equipment were parked outside the courthouse, cutting mobile phone signals in the vicinity, the group said.
Elsewhere in the city, a group of demonstrators from the Catholic Redemptorist Church were intercepted by police who surrounded the church, according to VCHR.
The three bloggers were convicted under Article 88 of the penal code, a provision rights groups say Vietnam has used to detain dozens of bloggers in a campaign to silence dissent.
“They abused the popularity of the Internet to post articles which undermined and blackened Vietnam’s (leaders), criticizing the (Communist) party and destroying people’s trust in the state,” Court President Nguyen Phi Long said in justifying the ruling, according to Agence France-Presse.
In addition to the prison terms, Nguyen Van Hai and Phan Thanh Hai were also given five years’ probationary detention, or house arrest, while Phan Thanh Hai was given three years.
Ta Phong Tan, a Catholic policewoman-turned-blogger whose mother committed suicide by setting herself on fire in August, was led out of the courtroom screaming, according to the news agency.
Phanh Tanh Hai, the only one of the three to plead guilty, promised the court “not to commit the crime again and to have no further contact with anti-state people,” the news agency reported.
In a speech cut off in the audio feed for diplomats and journalists attending the trial, Nguyen Van Hai, who is also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, said in his defense that he had never been against Vietnam’s Communist Party, according to the news agency.
“I just feel frustrated by injustice, corruption, dictatorship which does not represent the state but some individuals,” he said, before the sound was cut off.
The case of blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who has been held since he finished serving his sentences on other charges in October 2010, was raised by U.S .President Barack Obama in May.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said Monday it was “deeply concerned” that Vietnam had convicted Nguyen Van Hai for “peacefully expressing his political views” and called for the release of the three bloggers.
The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply troubled” about the convictions and warned that Vietnam’s protection of human rights is critical to relations between the two countries.
“These convictions are the latest in a series of moves by Vietnamese authorities to restrict freedom of expression,” State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland said.
“Protection of human rights is a necessary step in developing a closer, more mature bilateral relationship.”
International rights groups have called on Vietnam to release the three bloggers and drop charges against them.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, said the bloggers’ convictions showed Vietnam’s “contempt” for human rights.
“These harsh sentences against bloggers are absolutely outrageous and show the depth of the Vietnam government’s intolerance of views that oppose its own.”
“By its actions today, the Vietnam government is showing contempt for international human rights and daring the international community to do something about it,” he said, warning the convictions could hurt the country’s chances in its bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2014.
Harsh Prison Sentences for 3 Vietnamese Bloggers
HONG KONG – Vietnam has hit three prominent bloggers with lengthy prison terms, reinforcing its reputation as one of the world’s most restrictive countries for freedom of speech and the press.
Vietnam seems to be racing China to the bottom of the press-freedom index that is kept by Reporters Without Borders: In the group’s rankings of 179 countries, Vietnam is No. 172 and China is No. 174. (Eritrea and North Korea are at the bottom of the pile.)
Vietnam hands three bloggers harsh prison terms – cpj.org/x/4fd1
– CPJ (@pressfreedom) September 24, 2012
One of the convicted bloggers, Nguyen Van Hai, who writes under the name Dieu Cay, or The Peasant’s Pipe, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was among several detained journalists mentioned by President Barack Obama in a speech on World Press Freedom Day in May.
Mr. Obama said Dieu Cay’s first arrest, in 2008, had “coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam.” The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi issued a statement on Monday saying it was “deeply concerned” about his conviction “for peacefully expressing his political views.”
“The government’s treatment of Dieu Cay appears to be inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights relating to freedom of expression and due process,” the embassy said.
Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, also denounced the harshness of the sentences. She called for the immediate release of Dieu Cay as well as the other two bloggers, Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan, both of whom received Hellman/Hammett Awards last year.
The awards, which come with a cash grant, are given to writers around the world who have been politically persecuted. Administered by Human Rights Watch, the award is named for Lillian Hellman, the American playwright, and the novelist Dashiell Hammett.
Ms. Tan, 44, a former police officer, reportedly broke down in the courtroom after hearing her sentence of 10 years. In July, her mother died after setting herself on fire in front of a municipal building to protest the charges against her daughter.
Ms. Tan, a former Communist Party member, said she has often been harassed for her writings. She was once interrogated for a “distorted” blog post about a dream in which she encountered Karl Marx.
“This Vietnamese state even controls people’s dreams,” she said afterward.
The Hellman/Hammett citation said this about her:
Since launching her blog “Justice & Truth” (Cong ly & Su that) in November 2006, she has become one of the most prolific bloggers in Vietnam. She has authored more than 700 articles about social issues, including the mistreatment of children, official corruption, unfair taxation of poor people, and peasant grievances connected to illegal land confiscations by local officials.
In addition, using her former knowledge and experience of police work, she provides insightful observations about widespread abuse of power by the police in Vietnam.
Phan Thanh Hai, 43, a legal activist whose blogging name is Anh Ba Saigon, was reportedly the only one of the three to plead guilty and promised the court that he would have “no further contact with anti-state people.” He received a four-year sentence.
He has written about forbidden topics like the maritime disputes with China and bauxite mining in Vietnam, an issue that has caused angry fractures among the Communist Party elite. In recent years, a number of Vietnamese bloggers have sharply criticized plans to allow Chinese firms (using imported Chinese workers) to mine bauxite under alleged sweetheart deals with government and party leaders.
“After those protests, the government saw the influence of blogs on political life in Vietnam,” said a Vietnamese blogger who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Now they see blogs as something very dangerous, something they need to control. . . They see bloggers as hostile forces.”
“Today’s sentences, imposed against three online journalists who were merely expressing critical opinions, mark a new low point for press freedom in Vietnam,” said Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We call upon the judicial authorities to reverse these outrageous convictions and sentences and ask Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s government to reform its repressive laws in line with international standards of freedom of expression.”
“The alleged crime committed by these bloggers is to report stories that the government does not want the Vietnamese people to read,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam’s arbitrary use of vaguely worded national security laws to imprison critics of the government means bloggers are bearing the brunt of this assault on freedom of expression.”
Amnesty International, in assailing the sentences, called the three bloggers “prisoners of conscience.” Amnesty said relatives and supporters of the bloggers had been arrested to prevent them from attending the trial, which was held in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
“These shocking prison sentences confirm our worst fears – that the Vietnamese authorities have chosen to make an example of these bloggers, in an attempt to silence others,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty’s researcher on Vietnam, adding that freedom of expression in the country was “dire and worsening.”
A press freedom Web site said Dieu Cay was arrested in 2008 after writing about Chinese repression in Tibet and Beijing’s claims on the Spratly islands. He also objected to the Olympic torch relay being routed through parts of Vietnam before the Beijing Games.
When the police came to arrest him, Mr. Crispin said, “they told his family it was for his own protection from Chinese secret agents angered by his reporting.”
“They said if they did not catch my father in time, it would disappoint China and they would start a war and then we would lose even more territory,” Mr. Hai’s son, Nguyen Tri Dung, said in an interview with C.P.J. “That obviously wasn’t true.”
“Idiotically, yet unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese government imprisoned Dieu Cay under the charges ‘tax evasion,’ which is bogus to say the least,” said the free-speech Web site, Freedom for Vietnam.
Dieu Cay was released in 2010 after serving 30 months in jail, but he was arrested again for publishing “anti-state propaganda,” the charge that all three bloggers faced.
“Vietnam does not have the rule of law; it only has the rule of the Party,” he said in one of his blogs. “The law was compromised to protect police officers and Party members who abuse power.”