The group is one of the largest accused of plotting to overthrow the Vietnamese government in years.
A court in central Vietnam on Monday began proceedings against nearly two dozen members of an obscure environmental group for trying to “overthrow” the country’s communist leadership, according to family members and one of the group’s lawyers.
The 22 members of the Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son organization appeared before the court in Phu Yen province at the start of a five-day trial which involved one of the largest numbers of defendants charged with subversion against the one-party communist state in recent history.
The group, whose name translates as the Council for the Laws and Public Affairs of Bia Son (a provincial mountain), face the death penalty if convicted, although Vietnam has never executed a prisoner convicted of carrying out political crimes against the state.
Little is known about the group, which is led by 65-year-old Phan Van Thu, beyond what has been written by Vietnamese authorities, who consider the group a terrorist organization.
When he was arrested about a year ago, Vietnamese state media accused Thu of setting up two companies and investing in an eco-tourism park as a cover for recruiting supporters.
The state-run Vietnamese News Agency said the group had been run “non-violently” by Thu, who is also known as Tran Cong, between 2003 and his arrest in February last year. Membership numbers around 300 and is spread throughout several central and southern cities and provinces.
The group sought to “wear down people’s trust in the party and state leadership and create suspicion and concern about the current regime,” the agency reported, adding that the group received funding from overseas Vietnamese.
Thu’s wife Vo Thi Thuy told RFA’s Vietnamese Service said the group’s members were “religious” and strove to protect the environment.
“Everybody knows that we are a religious people. There is nothing to hide,” Thuy said recently.
“Secondly, we are doing this for the local ecology—to make our country beautiful and to provide a good place for people to vacation or for anybody who are looking for a peaceful place for their spirit,” she said.
“That is the goal of Bia Son’s people. They are seniors and young people with diseases. They came to [Thu] to find a solution for their lives.”
Another family member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the defendants were being charged under Article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code, which forbids “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” or establishing or joining organizations with the intent to do so.
Rights groups say the law has been used in the past as a pretext to repress and silence peaceful democratic voices.
Family members said that they did not hire any lawyers to represent members of the group because they believe that the defendants had acted on behalf of justice and did not intend to overthrow the government.
Vietnamese authorities have jailed dozens of political dissidents since launching a crackdown on freedom of expression at the end of 2009.
Earlier this month, a court convicted 14 activists, including Catholics, students, and bloggers, of “carrying out activities with intent to overthrow the people’s administration” for their involvement with the banned overseas opposition group Viet Tan. Nearly all of them were ordered jailed for between three and 13 years in prison.
In the case over the Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son organization, six lawyers were assigned to the defendants in accordance with Vietnamese law.
“We met with them several times at the prison,” lead lawyer Nguyen Huong Que told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Sunday.
“I saw them last week. They admitted that they were aware of what they were doing from the beginning.”
“They worked for the organization free. For example, [defendant] Nguyen Ky Lac worked for this organization for eight years without any wages. He even asked his family to contribute to the organization,” he said.
“In general, they admitted their goals and their activities. At the court, we will have questions and answers to make things clear.”
Family members of the accused said authorities allowed them access to the hearing.
“[At the trial] this morning, they called everybody’s names. The family members were arranged to sit in one place. Each defendant had four policemen escorting them,” the mother of one defendant—Nguyen Thai Binh—told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“They [the defendants] were accused of committing reactionary crimes. They are all very old and ill,” she said.
Authorities allowed anyone with an invitation into the courtroom to observe the proceedings, said another person in attendance that spoke to RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They did not block anybody … Family members went in after the defendants were brought out,” the observer said.
“The trial room was very small so some people had to sit outside. They did arrange chairs for people to sit and set up loudspeakers outside, so everybody could attend the trial,” they said.
“The defendants were nice people. They did not put up any resistance. They looked calm but ill, and had to limp. They answered questions naturally, according to instructions.”
Vietnam sentences 22 activists to jail
Vietnam has sentenced 22 activists to lengthy jail terms ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment, in one of the country’s largest subversion trials for years.
The punishments are part of an escalating crackdown on dissent by the communist regime, which has triggered growing international concern.
The 22 defendants were convicted of trying to overthrow the government, lawyer Nguyen Huong Que said – a charge which rights groups say is routinely laid against peaceful activists in the communist nation.
“The court gave the ringleader Phan Van Thu a life sentence, while the other 21 defendants were given between 10 and 17 years. The 21 defendants were also given up to five years house arrest after their terms end,” Que told AFP.
“At the trial, most of the defendants admitted their crime of aiming to overthrow the people’s administration,” said the lawyer, who was appointed by the court to defend the accused at the trial, which lasted just over a week.
“The sentences are adequate for their crimes,” he added.
The 22 – convicted by a court in the central province of Phu Yen – were accused of links to a little-known “reactionary” group called Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son in Vietnamese.
The group’s name translates as Council for the Laws and Public Affairs of Bia Son, but there is scant information about its aims beyond Vietnamese police accounts, which depict it as a terrorist group.
Bia Son is a mountain in Phu Yen province.
The group was run “non-violently” by its 65-year-old leader Phan Van Thu between 2003 and his arrest in February last year, state media has previously reported.
Dozens of political activists have been jailed since Vietnam, a one-party state, began a new crackdown on free expression in late 2009.
In another mass trial last month, Vietnam jailed 13 activists – including Catholics, bloggers and students – in move criticised by the United States as part of a “disturbing” trend in the authoritarian state.
Vietnam hands down long jail terms in subversion case
Reuters – A court in Vietnam has sentenced a man to life in prison and given jail terms of up to 17 years to other defendants after they were found guilty of subversive activities, state-run Vietnam Television said on Monday.
The verdict follows a series of harsh punishments handed down for dissent in the communist-ruled country, at a time of reported political infighting among the leadership centered on how to reform the economy and tackle management problems at big state firms that have led to piles of bad debt.
The People’s Court of Phu Yen province gave a life sentence to Phan Van Thu, head of a group that wanted to establish a new government in Vietnam, the television station said in a news bulletin.
Jail terms of between 12 and 17 years were handed to others in the case, the television station said without elaborating.
“Their action has seriously violated the laws,” it said.
People’s Police newspaper, which is run by the Public Security Ministry, said Thu and others had built up their forces in a tourist resort in the central province of Phu Yen from 2004, printing a number of anti-government documents until they were arrested in February 2012.
Thu had spent time in prison for anti-government activities in the late 1970s, the newspaper said.
In January, 13 political activists were found guilty of anti-state crimes and sentenced to prison, a ruling condemned by rights activists as part of a crackdown on dissidents.
Late last month, police arrested human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan in Hanoi after he wrote an article criticizing the Communist Party, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2013 published on Friday.
“The Vietnamese government is systematically suppressing freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecuting those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule,” the rights group said in its report.
The government has made no comment on the report.
Among other cases, on January 24 security forces detained a blogger in the northern province of Hung Yen and took him to a mental institution, according to a letter to Vietnam’s leaders from the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.
Last week, the authorities deported Nguyen Quoc Quan, a U.S. national of Vietnamese origin, after keeping him in prison without trial since April last year.
Quan was accused of subversion and of being a member of Viet Tan, an outlawed pro-democracy group based in the United States, Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan said.
Quan’s trial, scheduled for January 22, was dropped and he was freed on January 30, the Viet Tan group said.