(New York) - Vietnam's Supreme Court should overturn the politically motivated espionage conviction of Internet-dissident Pham Hong Son and order his release, Human Rights Watch urged today.

Pham, 35, is one of three Vietnamese writers chosen to receive prestigious Hellman/Hammett grants this year. He was sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment and three years of house arrest after a trial in June 2003 that did not meet international fair trial standards.

Vietnam's Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Pham's appeal in Hanoi on Tuesday, August 26. According to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, all international observers will be barred from the proceedings, including foreign diplomats and Western journalists.

"Pham Hong Son's first trial was a sham," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The Supreme Court should do better, by admitting international observers and resisting political directives predetermining the verdict."

Outside observers were also barred from Pham's first trial, despite written requests to attend. The sole witness called was Pham's wife, who was only allowed to answer two "yes" or "no" questions.

"The defense lawyers will have their hands tied by the political nature of this case," Adams said. "Political cases in Vietnam are invariably decided long before the opening of the hearing."

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is party, states that everyone has the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal. Defendants must be permitted to have adequate facilities to prepare a defense and present witnesses on their behalf.

Pham Hong Son was arrested in March 2002 for using the Internet to communicate with colleagues abroad and disseminate pro-democracy articles such as "What is Democracy" and "Hopeful Signs for Democracy in Vietnam." Earlier, police had interrogated Pham and searched his home, confiscating documents and his computer. Two days after he published an open letter on the Internet protesting the confiscation of his belongings, he disappeared. It was more than a week before his family learned that he had been arrested, without a warrant.

The indictment charges Pham with spying because he "took the initiative" to communicate by telephone and e-mail with "political opportunists" in Vietnam and abroad, and used email to "translate and send anti-Party and anti-government documents" to colleagues abroad. It did not state what country Pham Hong Son was allegedly spying for.

He is the fifth dissident in the past year to be arrested and charged with crimes relating to e-mail communication or other Internet activity.

"Jailing writers and cyber-dissidents shows Hanoi's complete intolerance for any sort of peaceful dissent and has a chilling effect on all debate in Vietnam," said Adams. "Government attempts to control the Internet will increasingly become a problem as Internet use grows in Vietnam."

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that Pham's wife, Vu Thuy Ha, could be arrested herself. She is currently under surveillance by local authorities. Since Pham's arrest in March 2002, she has only been allowed to see him once. On July 5, 2003, the two were allowed to meet for 30 minutes, separated by a glass wall and speaking over a telephone.

Pham Hong Son is among a diverse group of 28 writers from 13 countries who were selected for Hellman/Hammett grants this year in recognition of the courage with which they have faced political persecution. The two other honorees from Vietnam this year are Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan and Vu Cao Quan.

Short biographies of the three Vietnamese writers who received grants in 2003 follow.

  • Pham Hong Son graduated from medical school but left the profession to take an MBA course and work as a manager for pharmaceutical companies. In 2001, he decided to commit himself to the struggle for democracy and began writing and translating articles that are circulated by hand and posted on various websites of the Vietnamese diaspora. He also sent copies to Vietnamese leaders, and in January 2002, he wrote an open letter to the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party arguing that Vietnam was ready for democracy. Officials advised him to stop mixing in politics but he refused. On March 27, 2002, he was arrested and charged with espionage for communicating via email with dissidents abroad and using the Internet to send allegedly subversive documents. After a half-day closed trial in Hanoi on June 18, 2003, Pham Hong Son was sentenced to 13 years in prison and three years of house arrest. Visits from his wife have been largely forbidden.
  • Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan, social science researcher, co-authored three books based on discussions at meetings she and a colleague organized to discuss national issues. The books in turn supplied material for political debates. At first, Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan was praised as an "enlightened intellectual," but as the debates turned critical of the Vietnamese Communist Party, she was denounced as extremist and reactionary. She was arrested in August 2001. She was soon released but remains closely watched. Her telephone line has been cut and friends are discouraged by local authorities from visiting her.
  • Vu Cao Quan joined the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1962 and was expelled in 1999 after writing a series of articles criticizing communist party policies and advocating human rights and democracy. In April 2001, he was arrested and detained for nine days after organizing a meeting of dissidents in Hai Phong City. He was arrested again in September 2001 after joining the Anti-Corruption Association but released after one day. Vu Cao Quan is currently under unofficial house arrest, closely watched and isolated. He can no longer earn a living because no company will take the risk to hire him.