(New York) - The Vietnamese government should immediately and unconditionally release two human rights lawyers, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, whose prison sentences were reduced after an appeals court hearing in Hanoi today, Human Rights Watch said.
Nguyen Van Dai, 38, founder of the Vietnam Committee for Human Rights, and Le Thi Cong Nhan, 28, an advocate for multiparty democracy, were arrested in March. In a trial in May, Dai and Nhan were sentenced to five and four years imprisonment, respectively, on charges of disseminating propaganda against the government under article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code.
“No one should be imprisoned for peaceful political expression of their views,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam’s crackdown on dissent shows no sign of letting up. Instead, the authorities continue to arrest and imprison people for simply exercising their freedom of speech and advocating for democratic reforms.”
Dai, a recipient this year of the Hellman/Hammett prize for writers facing political persecution, had conducted human rights training seminars in Hanoi, documented land rights grievances by rural petitioners, defended persecuted Christians, and helped launch a democracy newsletter. Nhan was spokeswoman for Dang Thang Tien Vietnam (Vietnam Progression Party), one of several opposition parties that surfaced during a brief period in 2006 when the Vietnamese government temporarily eased restrictions on freedom of expression.
Among the crimes listed in Dai and Nhan’s indictment, dated April 24, are: conducting workshops to “defame and spread disinformation” against the government; “misinterpreting” the state’s policies regarding labor unions in Vietnam; communicating through the internet with Vietnamese human rights organizations abroad; and “collecting and hoarding” books by Vietnamese dissidents and human rights activists, along with banned newsletters such as “Freedom and Democracy” and “Free Speech.”
In today’s hearing, the appeals court reduced each of their prison sentences by one year. However, upon release, Dai and Nhan will be placed under administrative probation, or house arrest, for another four years and three years, respectively.
“As a newly elected member of the UN Security Council, Vietnam should uphold its international obligations on human rights,” Richardson said. “Instead, the Vietnamese government is violating the basic rights of its own citizens.”
Lawyers for Dai and Nhan forcefully advocated for the right of citizens to peacefully express their opinions and argued against the constitutionality of article 88 of the penal code. Lawyer Bui Quang Nghiem told the court: “Criticism against the party and the leaders and about human rights cannot be considered propaganda against the socialist state. If a law runs counter to reality and international conventions, courage is needed to change or modify it. Dai and Nhan are innocent, and I ask for their freedom.”
In a particularly courageous step, Dai’s wife, Vu Minh Khanh, released a public statement today defending her husband’s human rights work. She systematically detailed numerous procedural errors that took place during Dai’s detention, police investigation, and first instance trial. She also described violations of his civil rights as guaranteed by Vietnam’s Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a state party, and she called for suspension of article 88 and the immediate release of her husband.
Dai and Nhan are among more than 40 democracy activists, opposition party members, underground publishers, and labor union leaders who have been arrested in Vietnam during the last 15 months.
The Vietnamese government launched its crackdown on peaceful dissent in late 2006 after it secured membership in the World Trade Organization and was removed from the US government’s list of countries with the worst track records of violating the right to freedom of religion.
The most recent arrests took place earlier this month when 20 police officers raided a private home in Ho Chi Minh City, where a group of activists from the Viet Tan (Reform) Party were meeting. Police confiscated Viet Tan leaflets advocating peaceful democratic change and arrested six activists – including two Vietnamese citizens, a Vietnamese-French journalist, two Vietnamese-Americans, and a Thai national.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, international rights groups, and US and European diplomats in Hanoi have criticized Vietnam’s criminalization of peaceful dissent. The Vietnamese government has tried to justify this repression through vaguely worded national security provisions in Vietnam’s penal code such as article 88 (conducting anti-government propaganda), article 87 (undermining the policy of national unity), and article 258 (abusing democratic rights such as freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, association, and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State).