(New York) - The Vietnamese government should drop criminal charges against cyber-dissident Pham Hong Son, Human Rights Watch said today. Son is slated to be tried in Hanoi on June 18 on charges of spying.

"Vietnam's crackdown on critics who use the Internet to peacefully disseminate their ideas or communicate with democracy advocates abroad appears to be escalating," said Minky Worden, electronic media director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch said that five other prominent critics of the government in Vietnam have been arrested and sentenced to harsh prison terms during the last year, several for using the Internet to express their views.

According to an April 10, 2003 indictment obtained by Human Rights Watch, Pham Hong Son is charged with spying under article 80 of Vietnam's Penal Code because he "took the initiative" to communicate by telephone and e-mail with "political opportunists" in Vietnam and abroad. Spying is punishable by twelve to twenty years' imprisonment, a life sentence, or the death penalty. Son has been detained since March 2002 and is currently being held at B14 (Thanh Liet) detention center in Hanoi.

The indictment states: "Son willingly supported the view of these mentioned political opportunists and became a follower of the action plan to take advantage of freedom and democracy to advocate pluralism and a multiparty system in order to oppose the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam." The indictment further charges that Son received emails from dissidents abroad that stated that "the way to change the nature of the current regime was to remove the restrictions imposed by the Party leadership and Government, and to unify and organize the forces of democracy and pluralism."

The indictment also says Son used email to "translate and send anti-Party and anti-government documents" to colleagues abroad. One of his alleged crimes was to translate and disseminate via email an article titled "What is Democracy?" which he downloaded from the website of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam.

"These harsh prison sentences and vaguely worded charges of spying appear designed to intimidate not only government critics, but everyone in Vietnam who uses the Internet," said Worden.

Vietnam's Penal Code lists numerous crimes against national security, some of which contain provisions that on their face violate international human rights law. Examples include article 88 of the Penal Code, "Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam"; article 87, "Undermining the unity policy"; and article 79, "Carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration."

Dissidents who have been arrested during the past year include Nguyen Dan Que, arrested in March 2003 and charged under article 80, not yet tried; Nguyen Khac Toan, sentenced in December 2002 to twelve-years' imprisonment under article 80; Pham Que Duong, arrested in December 2002 and charged under article 80; Tran Van Khue, arrested in December 2002 and charged with making propaganda against the state (most likely under article 88); and Le Chi Quang, sentenced to four-years' imprisonment in October 2002 under article 88.

Human Rights Watch said that Pham Hong Son and others are being held in violation of their fundamental rights, and called for their immediate release.

Vietnam has been a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1982. Article 9 of the covenant provides all individuals the right to be free from arrest or detention that is arbitrary. Article 19 protects the right to freedom of expression, including the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds."