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(New York)—The Vietnamese government should immediately release Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a 62-year-old physician who was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment for “abusing democratic freedoms,” Human Rights Watch said today. Dr. Que is one of three dissidents, all winners of the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers, convicted this month solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

On Thursday, Dr. Que, a longtime human rights advocate, was convicted for writing an essay—distributed over the Internet—about state censorship of information and the media. Since his arrest in March 2003, he has been held in incommunicado detention.

Two other elderly dissidents were also convicted in July. Pham Que Duong, 73, a prominent military historian and former army colonel, was tried on July 9. Tran Khue, 68, a sociologist and professor at the University of Ho Chi Minh City, was tried on July 14. Both were convicted and sentenced to 19 months’ imprisonment. Because of time served, they are expected to be released within a week. The men had faced official pressure since they proposed establishing an independent anticorruption organization in 2001, and after signing a petition along with 21 other dissidents in 2002 to Vietnam’s National Assembly calling for democratic reforms.

All three men were convicted under Vietnam’s Criminal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.”

“None of these men should have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnamese government must cease its heavy-handed attempts to silence its critics.”

While Pham Que Duong and Tran Khue were essentially sentenced to time served, Nguyen Dan Que—who has already spent nearly 20 years in prison because of his public appeals for a multiparty political system and an end to censorship in Vietnam—will not be released until September 2005. He suffers from poor health, including hypertension, a peptic duodenal ulcer and kidney stones.

Nguyen Dan Que has received numerous awards for his writing and his human rights activism, including the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers and the Robert F. Kennedy human rights award. Literature professor Tran Khue and military historian Pham Que Duong are also recipients of the Hellman/Hammett award.

Human Rights Watch administers the Hellman/Hammett awards for writers around the world who have been victims of political persecution and are in financial need. The grants are financed by the estate of the playwright Lillian Hellman in funds set up in her name and that of her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, both of whom were targeted in anticommunist “witch hunts” in the United States during the 1950s.

“It’s outrageous that the Vietnamese government continues to persecute distinguished writers and intellectuals, simply because they have issued public appeals for Vietnam to improve its human rights record and implement democratic reforms,” said Zarifi.

This month’s trials are the latest in a series of convictions in recent months of prominent intellectuals, writers and former Communist Party stalwarts who have been charged with criminal offenses after issuing public statements criticizing the government of using the Internet to disseminate proposals for reform.

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