In Crackdown, Vietnam Activists Sentenced

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Hoang Hai / VNA / REUTERS

Political activists (front row, L-R): Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Tien Trung, Le Thang Long and Le Cong Dinh stand during their trial at the People's Court in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on Jan. 20, 2010

A court in Ho Chi Minh City found a prominent Vietnamese human rights lawyer and three other pro-democracy activists guilty of trying to overthrow the government. Though the defendants avoided possible death sentences, the widely publicized trial, part of a broader recent crackdown on dissidents, is seen as a signal that Vietnam's communist leadership is growing increasingly intolerant of criticism of the regime.

According to the indictment, the defendants were on trial for pressing for multiparty democracy and "disseminating information to distort reality and make people disbelieve the Party and state leadership." The four men, who were arrested at different times last summer, were accused of working with hostile foreign elements seeking to oust the communist government. The sentences, which range between five and 16 years, were swiftly condemned by human rights groups and Western governments. The U.S. has "deep concerns over the arrest and conviction of persons for the peaceful expression of their beliefs," said U.S. consul general, Kenneth Fairfax, following the verdict on Wednesday afternoon.

The trial lasted just one day, and was closed to the public, though reporters were allowed to watch via closed-circuit television in a nearby room. Several family members said they were barred from the court. The panel of judges deliberated less than 30 minutes before announcing their decision. The charges and sentences actually took longer to read than to deliberate on, which Amnesty International said was evidence that they had been written in advance of the hearing, adding to the "mockery of justice."

During the proceedings, Le Cong Dinh, a well-known U.S.-educated attorney, admitted that he had joined the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam and had called for multiparty democracy — a crime in Vietnam's single-party state. His other crime, according to the Ho Chi Minh City court, included attending a seminar on non-violent political change. Dinh is perhaps the most high-profile individual to ever be tried as a dissident in Vietnam. The former Fulbright scholar who studied law at Tulane University has represented several human rights activists, but he also successfully represented the state itself in a 2003 trade dispute with the U.S. over catfish dumping. Dinh told the court that "during my studies overseas, I was influenced by Western attitudes toward democracy, freedom and human rights." He denied, however, that he was trying to overthrow the government. He received a five-year sentence.

A second defendant, Nguyen Tien Trung, a French-educated IT engineer, also admitted to the court that he had joined the Democratic Party, though he said he made a mistake by engaging in pro-democracy activities and deeply regretted his actions. He was given a seven-year jail term. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, an Internet developer, who maintained that he had done nothing wrong, received a 16-year sentence. A fourth defendant received a five-year sentence as an accomplice to the other defendants.

In the past year, authorities have detained activists for everything from wearing anti-Chinese t-shirts to hanging banners calling for multiparty elections. In October, nine people involved in pro-democracy efforts were sentenced to prison terms for spreading propaganda against the state. Hanoi has also been particularly prickly over accusations that officials have caved in to pressure from China, claiming that they are on Beijing's payroll in exchange for unfettered access to the country's natural resources. Authorities detained several bloggers and journalists in recent months who openly criticized Vietnam for allowing China to set up large bauxite mining operations in the country, which China needs to manufacture aluminum. The government has also tried to block the popular social networking site, Facebook, in order to limit political discourse as well as criticism of the bauxite projects.

For the country's leaders, stability is by far the most important goal, says Nguyen Quang A, former director of the Institute for Development Studies in Hanoi, an independent think tank that disbanded in September to protest the government's restriction on political research. Why? Stability attracts investment. Foreign companies, he says, aren't overly bothered by these trials or Vietnam's human rights record, but they do show interest "when their investment is directly affected."

This year's reigning in of public dissent has also been linked to internal struggles between communist hardliners and reformers within the secretive Politburo, the inner circle of communist party leaders. Even though the next big political event — the national congress in which key officials will be elevated (and demoted) — isn't scheduled until 2011, analysts say the recent crackdown is part of a jockeying for power in the run up to the meeting.

Vietnam abandoned a centrally planned, Soviet-style economy back in the 1980s but remains under the firm control of the Communist Party. Reforms helped Vietnam grow at breakneck speed, with several consecutive years of 8% growth — a rate only slightly behind China's — that lifted millions out of poverty. Economic liberalization, however, has not been accompanied by similar political freedoms. While Vietnam continued to grow and its citizens prospered, there was little groundswell of support for multiparty democracy. But the recent economic downturn, coupled with several high-profile corruption scandals where officials have been caught with their hands in the till, has hurt the Communist Party's image and threatens to undermine its rule.

"I think Vietnam is at a historic point in the challenges it faces," says Pham Hong Son, a former doctor and businessman who spent four years in prison on charges of spying after he posted a online translation of a U.S. government document entitled "What is Democracy?" Son believes authorities' cozy relationship with China has little benefit to most Vietnamese, and that authorities are only interested in protecting their own interests at the expense of the country. He doesn't expect the recent verdicts to have the intended effect of muffling discontent. The sham trial, he says, only further illustrates the corruption within the regime, and will only encourage people "to throw themselves into the cause against the monopoly in power."