Rights groups are strongly condemning a Hanoi court’s sentencing Wednesday of two Vietnamese bloggers to prison terms on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms.”
In a one-day trial, Hanoi’s People’s Court sentenced Nguyen Huu Vinh, founder of the news website and aggregator Ba Sam, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, his editorial assistant, to five and three years respectively under article 258 of the Penal Code, which carries maximum penalties of seven years in jail for “abusing democratic freedoms to harm the interests of the State”. The two had been accused of “publishing online articles with bad contents and misleading information to lower the prestige and create public distrust of government offices, social organizations, and citizens.”
Both bloggers were held for more than 22 months in pre-trial detention. It wasn’t clear if the time they already served would count against the sentences the court imposed today. They were taken back to the B-14 detention center in Hanoi following the verdict.
The Vietnamese government must immediately end the ongoing repression of peaceful dissent, release all political prisoners, and repeal its draconian legislation, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said.
“Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy should not have spent a single day in prison for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression. They must be immediately released, along with all other political prisoners in the country,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.
The Committee to Protect Journalists also criticized the verdict: “Today’s harsh convictions of bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “If Vietnam wants to be viewed as a responsible member of the international community and a reliable partner in multilateral agreements, these bogus anti-state convictions must stop immediately.”
Vietnamese authorities have increasingly used Article 258 to stifle media criticism and persecute independent bloggers and journalists, according to CPJ research.
The charges stemmed from 24 entries posted to Ba Sam and two other blogs Vinh established: Dan Quyen (Citizen’s Rights) and Chep Su Viet (Writing Vietnamese History). Both blogs were carried on Ba Sam‘s site, reports said. Judge Nguyen Van Pho ruled that the articles in question had distorted the ruling Communist Party’s policies, reduced public trust in the party and went against the interests of the nation.
Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy have been detained since their arrest on May 5th 2014 in Hanoi. Nguyen Huu Vinh, a former police officer, established Ba Sam (Talking Nonsense) as an independent news platform in September 2007. The blog posted links to state-run Vietnamese media, often with critical commentary added by the blog’s administrators, as well as translated versions of foreign news reports on political, economic, and social issues. The site also published articles and commentary from local activists and dissidents. In 2013 and 2014, hackers repeatedly attacked the website.
Vinh’s health has declined while in detention, according to a petition and separate appeal for action filed with authorities by his wife, Le Thi Minh Ha. After a prison visit last October, she said that Vinh had developed a rash all over his body, a condition she speculated was symptomatic of liver and blood disorders caused by lack of exposure to sunlight.
“Today’s verdict is all the more concerning because it could signal a new wave of repression as new party leaders assume control,” said Mr. Lahidji.
The trial of Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, originally scheduled for January 19th 2016, was postponed ahead of the Vietnam Communist Party’s (VCP’s) congress, held in Hanoi in January 2016. Between March 31st and April 12th 2016, Vietnam’s National Assembly will endorse the new leadership nominated by the VCP. Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang, who has overseen the ongoing crackdown on bloggers, activists, and human rights defenders, is slated to become the country’s new President.
“Without the repeal of the Vietnam’s numerous repressive laws that continue to be used to target government critics, it is extremely likely that the number of political prisoners will rise under a new hardline leadership. It is time for the international community to step up its pressure for genuine legislative and political reforms in Vietnam,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.
Vietnam holds about 130 political prisoners – the largest number among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.
Amendments to the Criminal Code, adopted by the National Assembly on November 27th 2015, failed to repeal numerous clauses that are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international law. In addition to Article 258, other provisions that fail to comply with international standards include: (1) Article 79 (‘’activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’’); Article 80 (‘’spying’’); Article 87 (‘’undermining national solidarity, sowing divisions between religious and non-religious people’’); and Article 88 (‘’conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’’). Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly used these provisions to suppress the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to detain government critics.
FIDH and VCHR have consistently denounced and called for the repeal of the above-referenced ‘’national security’’ legislation that is overly broad and totally inconsistent with Vietnam’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Vietnam held at least six reporters behind bars, including Vinh and Thuy, on December 1st 2015, when CPJ conducted its most recent census of journalists imprisoned around the world.