UPDATED at 4:20 P.M. ET on 2020-03-09
RFA blogger Truong Duy Nhat was sentenced to a 10-year prison term on Monday in a trial held in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, a verdict his lawyer said appeared to be “planned” in advance and which Nhat called "vile political revenge," state media and other sources said.
Charged with “abusing his position and authority” in a decade-old land-fraud case, Nhat was convicted in a trial that was originally set for last week, but which was postponed because court officials had summoned only one of his lawyers to attend.
Speaking on Monday to RFA’s Vietnamese Service, attorney Dang Dinh Manh slammed the verdict as “unfair” and unsupported by the evidence presented in court.
“Under the laws of Vietnam’s Penal Code, four factors must be present in determining that someone may be charged with a crime, but there were problems with at least three of those factors in the case of Truong Duy Nhat,” Dang said, without explaining which parts of the prosecution’s case were weak.
“It seems that the court had already planned its verdict, as the trial took place very quickly, and ended with a heavy punishment being imposed,” he said.
Dang said that Nhat's last words in the trial were an expression of thanks to all who supported him during his case and a line of poetry from Phan Chu Trinh, an early 20th century dissident.
"In a temporary setback, those who mend the sky do not let minor things get them down," read the poetry.
Truong Duy Nhat, a weekly contributor to RFA’s Vietnamese Service, disappeared in Bangkok in late January 2019 amid fears he had been seized by Vietnamese agents, and two months later was revealed to be under arrest in Hanoi.
Nhat who had earlier been jailed in Vietnam from 2013 to 2015 for his writings criticizing Vietnam’s government, was charged by police investigators in July 2019 with “abusing his position” in a case involving the sale of public land at an eventual loss to the state of over VND $13 billion.
The new charge was filed after investigators failed to find sufficient evidence to convict him on an earlier charge of illegally acquiring property, his wife and a family friend told RFA in an earlier report.
Different evidence presented
The indictment finally handed down charged Nhat, bureau chief of the Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) newspaper in Da Nang city from 1998 to 2011, with using his influence with the Da Nang People’s Committee to buy public land for use as a headquarters for his newspaper, with a local businessman named Phan Van Anh Vu recruited by Nhat to make the purchase.
The land was acquired at less than its proper value, the indictment charged, with a loss to the state at the time of its July 2004 purchase estimated at VND 300 million, rising to over VND 13 billion at the time of the loss’s discovery on April 17, 2018, state media sources said in earlier reports.
Great Unity’s former chief editor Le Quang Trang and deputy chief editor Bui Thong Toan have been accused of “lack of responsibility causing serious consequences” in the case and have been referred for disciplinary action to the government’s Central Control Commission, state media said this week.
The amount of losses attributed to Le and Buoi have been given in values obtaining in 2014, however, while those attributed to Nhat were given in values obtaining in 2018, Dang said, speaking to RFA after Nhat’s trial.
“I pointed out these differences during the trial, but the court did not accept this as relevant, and [Nhat] was finally sentenced to 10 years in jail,” he said.
Calls for Nhat's release
In written comments to RFA, Truong Thuc Doan, the blogger’s Canada-based daughter, maintained his innocence, saying: "No matter how long they want to imprison my father, I am sure that he did nothing wrong and they would not be able to bend his volition, thought or stop him from writing critical articles."
Likewise, Nhat's friend Pham Xuan Nguyen, said Nhat had done nothing wrong.
“This sentence is very harsh to Truong Duy Nhat. It is not a real thing," he told RFA.
In a statement Monday, New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Vietnam’s government not to contest any appeal Nhat files against his verdict and to immediately free the blogger from jail.
“Truong Duy Nhat was convicted for his journalism, not the bogus charges Vietnamese authorities dreamt up to silence his critical voice,” CPJ senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said.
“Vietnam must stop jailing journalists on arbitrary and trumped-up charges,” Crispin said.
In a written statement, Radio Free Asia president Bay Fang condemned what she called Nhat’s unjust conviction, adding, “This deplorable act by Vietnamese authorities delivers another blow against free speech and free expression.”
“This miscarriage of justice only reinforces RFA’s mission to provide the people of Vietnam with uncensored perspectives, and accurate news and information,” Fang said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huynh Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.