The conviction and prison sentences of 14 activists by the People’s Court of Nghe An province on January 9, 2012, marks a sharp escalation of government attacks on critics. The convictions of the 14 should be quashed immediately, as should charges against the prominent blogger, Le Quoc Quan, arrested in late December. Thirteen of those convicted were sentenced to serve prison terms ranging individually from 3 to 13 years, to be followed by periods of up to five years of controlled residence. One was given a three-year conditionally suspended sentence, making him easily vulnerable to re-arrest.
The 14 were charged after attending a training course in Bangkok held by the banned Viet Tan organization. Eleven were charged with being members of Viet Tan, while three were charged with actively participating in the organization. Viet Tan is an organization that in the 1980s led a resistance movement against the Vietnamese communist government but for the past few decades has worked for peaceful political reform, democracy, and human rights in Vietnam. As in numerous previous cases, the government relied on loosely-worded national security laws – in this instance article 79 of the penal code, which vaguely prohibits activities aimed at “overthrowing the government”– to prosecute people engaged in the exercise of their fundamental human rights.
Showing the sensitivity of the case, large numbers of police were deployed at the court. Police temporarily detained and manhandled a number of bloggers who attempted to attend the trial.
“The conviction of yet more peaceful activists is another example of a government that is increasingly afraid of the opinions of its own people,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of imprisoning critics, the Vietnamese government should be honoring them for their efforts to address the myriad problems facing the country that the government itself has also identified.”
The 14 convicted are Dang Ngoc Minh, Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, Ho Van Oanh, Le Van Son, Nguyen Dang Minh Man, Nguyen Dang Vinh Phuc, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Nguyen Van Duyet, Nguyen Van Oai, Nguyen Xuan Oanh, Nong Hung Anh, Thai Van Dung, and Tran Minh Nhat (for biographical information on each, see the appendix). They were arrested between August and December 2011 and held for more than a year before being put on trial.
A number of the defendants, including Nguyen Xuan Anh, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Ho Duc Hoa, and Dang Xuan Dieu, had participated in volunteer activities in their local neighborhoods in Vinh, including encouraging women not to have abortions, supporting the poor and people with disabilities, founding the Vinh Human Development Foundation, and working to protect the environment. Others, such as Nong Hung Anh, Thai Van Dung, Tran Minh Nhat, Ho Van Oanh, Nguyen Van Oai, and Nguyen Van Duyet, have participated in peaceful protests related to China or were involved in attempting to manifest support of legal activist Cu Huy Ha Vu during the 2011 trial that sentenced him to prison for the peaceful exercise of his fundamental rights. Nguyen Van Oai, Nguyen Van Duyet, and Ho Van Oanh participated in activities that protect workers’ rights in Binh Duong province, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City.
Three lesser known people in the group are Dang Ngoc Minh, her daughter Nguyen Dang Minh Man, and her son Nguyen Dang Vinh Phuc, from the city of Tra Vinh in Tra Vinh province. According to the indictment, in April 2010, Dang Ngoc Minh and Nguyen Dang Minh Man “under the direction of Viet Tan, bought black paint and painted the letters ‘HS.TS.VN’ on the outside of a sewer and on the wall” of an old school in Trung Ngai commune, Vung Liem district, Vinh Long province “in order to incite people to protest” so that they could take pictures and send them to the Viet Tan Party. “HS.TS.VN” stands for the Spratly and Paracel islands, one of the major sources of territorial disputes between Vietnam and China, an issue which the Vietnamese authorities deem highly sensitive.
Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Dang Xuan Dieu, Nong Hung Anh, Thai Van Dung, and Tran Minh Nhat have blogged in favor of freedom of expression and in support of the establishment of a multi-party and pluralist political system. Before the trial, Dang Xuan Dieu said, “I have done nothing contrary to my conscience, so although the authorities may punish me physically and impose a severe sentence upon me, the government is only thereby trampling on the eternal good morals of the Vietnamese nation, which as its affair is a matter for which it must bear responsibility.”
Human Rights Watch said that the case of Le Van Son (also known as Paulus Le Son), a 27-year-old blogger whose postings reported on land disputes, assaults by local authorities on fellow activists, police abuse, and discrimination against HIV patients, shows the misuse of the courts for political purposes. Before he was arrested, Le Van Son tried to observe the trials of other dissidents, such as the prominent legal activist Cu Huy Ha Vu. As Le Van Son wrote in one posting, “After all, those who are charged with ‘anti-government crimes’ are the ones who use precious construction material to … point out the cracks, the holes and the deep abyss in a political regime which faces the danger of collapse.” He was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment followed by five years’ controlled residence. Dang Xuan Dieu, who received the same sentence, has said of the allegations against him, “I have done nothing contrary to my conscience, so although the authorities may punish me physically and impose a severe sentence upon me, the government is only thereby trampling on the eternal good morals of the Vietnamese nation, which as its affair is a matter for which it must bear responsibility.”
Many of the 14 are affiliated with the Redemptorist Thai Ha church in Hanoi and Ky Dong church in Ho Chi Minh City, known for strongly backing bloggers and other peaceful religious and rights activists. Over the last two years, both churches have regularly held prayer vigils expressing support for those they consider prisoners of conscience and detainees otherwise held for their political or religious belief. Dang Xuan Dieu, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Nguyen Van Duyet, Ho Van Oanh, Tran Minh Nhat, Thai Van Dung, Nong Hung Anh, and Le Van Son either took media courses organized by the Redemptorist churches or contributed writing to its website. The Redemptorists, formally known as the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, are a Catholic missionary congregation founded in Italy in 1732 that currently operate in more than 77 countries worldwide.
Redemptorist activists have been a growing voice among Vietnamese movements for democracy and human rights in recent years, especially in areas where they have a considerable presence, such as Nghe An, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. Some Redemptorist churches and parishes have become centers of dissent. Religiously affiliated activists have been targeted for arrest and other forms of harassment and intimidation, including restrictions on movement, violent assaults on individuals, and the deployment of armed security forces around churches.
“It is not clear if those convicted were targeted for alleged affiliations with Viet Tan, being members of the Redemptorist church, or simply for their activism,” said Adams. “Whatever the reason, the government appears despotic to its own people and the world when it says that someone who tries to uphold the rights of others is a threat to the state.”