A Show (and Tell) Trial in Vietnam

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Osamu Hirabayashi / Kyodo News / AP

Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly in a courtroom in Vietnam's central province of Thua Thien Hue, Friday March 30, 2007. A Vietnamese court sentenced the dissident Catholic priest to eight years in prison for anti-government activities, after a dramatic trial Friday in which a defiant Ly shouted denunciations of the ruling Communist Party.

When Vietnam granted rare access to the trial of prominent dissidents, it may not have expected to produce the sight of communist officials slapping their hands over the mouth of a 60-year-old man — a Catholic priest, no less — and wrestling him out of the courtroom. But that is exactly what happened foreign journalists and diplomats saw in the trial of dissident priest Father Nguyen Van Ly and four other activists.

In Vietnam's highest-profile political case in years, the five defendants were found guilty of "conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic" after a raucous, half-day trial Friday in which the priest loudly denounced the court as "the law of the jungle." At that point he was hushed up and hustled out to follow the proceedings by loudspeaker in an adjoining room where he eventually heard his sentence: Eight years in prison for helping set up and publicize a small, illegal opposition party, known as the Progression Party.

Such harsh punishment of dissent is not surprising in Vietnam, where the Communist Party remains firmly in control despite 20 years of economic liberalization. What was new is that the court spectacle in the ancient imperial capital of Hue was so open. Politically sensitive trials especially tend to be held quietly and — perhaps — announced after the fact.

For the past several years, Western diplomats have been urging Vietnam's government to promote "transparency and rule of law" as essential ingredients for fighting corruption and fostering smooth business transactions. The same terms are often polite code for allowing democratic movements to exist as well. Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says he's not sure what message Vietnam's leaders were sending with the open trial in Hue. "It's possible they were just trying to tell everyone that they are so strong and so confident that, yeah, you can come into our trials, and they're phony and it's a kangaroo court — and tough luck," Adams says. "It's also entirely possible that somebody in the system considers this is a small reform in opening up trials, even if what happened in the courtroom isn't very pretty." If Vietnam says it's just following the law in its dissident crackdown, the open trial could be seen as delivering on pledges of transparency, too.

Vietnam's government routinely denies that it has any political prisoners, but only punishes "criminals." Technically, at least, that's true. Under the country's criminal law, Article 88 — under which Father Ly and his colleagues were charged — forbids "conducting propaganda" against the state, with penalties from three to 12 years in prison. Articles 87 and 89, respectively, lay out punishments of up to 15 years for "undermining national unity" and "disrupting security." Recently, Vietnam has been cracking down against a small but determined group of dissidents — collectively calling themselves Bloc 8406 — that have recently been using the Internet to disseminate petitions for multi-party elections.

The government's evidence against Father Ly was clear enough. Prosecutors said when police raided Father Ly's diocese office and several homes in Hue over the lunar new year in February, they seized eight computers, nine cellphones and 147 SIM cards as well as 200 kilograms of documents denouncing one-party rule. "Their crime is damaging national security and serving as a tool of overseas reactionary and hostile forces against the government of Vietnam," the prosecutor told the court. The defendants had no lawyers present, but at least one didn't deny the charges. "For the country and the people of Vietnam, I will continue to fight for democracy," said the Progression Party co-founder Nguyen Phong, 32. Soon after that, the audio feed from the courtroom was abruptly cut off. Phong was later handed a six-year sentence. (Two other defendants were given probation and Father Ly's assistant, Nguyen Binh Thanh, was sentenced to five years.)

Human rights groups quickly decried the trial as an attempt to silence others in Vietnam, saying the sedition laws violate Vietnam's constitution guaranteeing free speech. U.S. Deputy Consul Kenneth Chern attended the trial in Hue and said: "We call upon the Vietnamese government to allow individuals to peacefully exercise their rights of the freedom of speech without fear or recrimination." Whether Hanoi is prepared to listen could be seen later this year: police recently arrested a pair of human-rights lawyers and Bloc 8406 supporters, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, who had organized training sessions for political activists in the capital. They, too, are charged under Article 88. It's unknown whether their eventual trials will be so open.