Vietnamese courts on Thursday sentenced six dissident bloggers and activists to long terms in prison amid a continuing crackdown on online expressions of dissent in the one-party communist state that has seen dozens of people jailed this year, sources said.
In southeastern Vietnam’s Dong Nai province, four men—Doan Viet Hoan, Vo Thuong Trung, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue—were handed prison terms of from 2.5 to three years each on charges of plotting to set explosives, for which no proof was shown in court, a defense attorney said.
“[Prosecutors] had no evidence to prove that the defendants were preparing explosions to go off on April 28, 2019," Nguyen Van Mieng—the lawyer for Nguyen Dinh Khue—told RFA’s Vietnamese Service after the trial.
“If they had wanted to cause explosions, they would have to have had wires, detonators, and material like that. But they had none of those things,” he said, adding, “The police only confiscated their cell phones and messages on the phones.”
Quoted by state media, a report prepared by prosecutors said the four men had gone online to read posts with “anti-state” content and had called for street protests on April 30, but Mieng said the men had wanted only to protest a price hike in electricity and gas and a law on special economic zones that many Vietnamese fear will favor Chinese investment in the country.
“They know nothing about how to make explosive devices,” Mieng said.
In a separate case, a court in central Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa province sentenced Facebook user Pham Van Diep to a nine-year prison term for criticizing Vietnam’s government online for its handling of a 2016 toxic-waste spill that devastated the coastal areas of four Vietnamese provinces, leaving thousands jobless.
Speaking to RFA after the trial, attorney Ha Huy Son called Pham’s sentence unwarranted and unfair.
“He only expressed his opinion, and he did nothing to oppose the state,” he said. “He admitted what he did. He is critical of Marxism-Leninism and communism, but [the court] considers that a crime against the state of Vietnam.”
In another case, Facebook user Nguyen Chi Vung was handed a six-year prison term on Thursday by a court in southern Vietnam’s Bac Lieu province on charges of live-streaming anti-state content on his Facebook page and encouraging others to join in protests.
Call to delay trade talks
Meanwhile, prominent independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, who was detained at his home in Ho Chi Minh City on Nov. 21 for his criticism of the communist government, awaits investigation and trial on charges of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code.
In a Nov. 22 statement, European Parliament envoy for trade talks with Vietnam Saskia Bricmont voiced shock at the news of the arrest of the former communist party member, noting that Pham had written earlier to the parliament’s president and to EU trade officials to alert them to Vietnam’s deteriorating human rights situation.
Saskia is now asking for a delay in the ratification of European trade and investment agreements with Vietnam “until a certain number of conditions are fulfilled,” she said.
“The essential condition is a reform of the criminal code and its implementation with United Nations standards,” Saskia said, adding, “To show its good faith, we also demand that Vietnam release [its] political prisoners without delay.”
Writing on Nov. 21, the day of Pham’s arrest, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson called on the EU to “speak up for independent journalist Pham Chi Dung who simply called for Europe to demand real improvements in the human rights situation before ratifying the Europe-Vietnam [Free Trade Agreement].”
“By arresting Pham Chi Dung, Vietnam is showing its repressive intolerance of any dissenting voices and its determination to suppress efforts to foster an independent press in the country,” Robertson said.
“The EU, US and other like-minded countries should demand the immediate and unconditional release of Pham Chi Dung and the dropping of all charges against him.”
Vietnam has been consistently rated “Not Free” in the areas of internet and press freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group.
Dissent is not tolerated in the communist nation, and authorities routinely use a set of vague provisions in the penal code to detain dozens of writers and bloggers.
Estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience now held in Vietnam’s jails vary widely, with Human Rights Watch putting the number in October at 138. The rights group Defend the Defenders meanwhile puts the number as at least 240, with 36 convicted this year alone.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Richard Finney.