(New York) – The Vietnamese government should immediately free respected human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh and repeal national security laws that criminalize peaceful expression and association, Human Rights Watch said today.
On June 13, 2009, police from the Ministry of Public Security’s Investigation Security Agency arrested Dinh on national security charges and raided his Ho Chi Minh City law office. Police charged him under article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, “conducting propaganda against the government,” which carries a sentence of up to 20 years. The arrest came just days after President Nguyen Minh Triet addressed the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, on June 6, 2009 at their annual congress in Hanoi. In his speech, Triet affirmed Vietnam’s respect and support for progressive lawyers and vowed to criticize those who “trample democracy and human rights.”
“This arrest makes a mockery of the president’s lofty words,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It tells other lawyers and human rights defenders just what they can expect if they dare to speak out.”
Government authorities accuse Dinh of using his work as a defense lawyer for high-profile democracy and religious freedom activists to “propagandize against the regime and distort Vietnam’s constitution and laws,” as reported in Nhan Dan (The People), the Vietnamese Communist Party’s official daily newspaper.
Dinh, 41, is the former vice president of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association and a managing partner of DC Law, a prominent private law firm in Ho Chi Minh City. Clients listed on the firm’s webpage include Yahoo!, Sun Wah International, Nestlé, and Toyota. After studying law at Hanoi Law School and Saigon University, Dinh received a Fulbright scholarship to study at Tulane University in the United States, where he received a master of law degree in 2000.
Dinh is best known for his defense of Vietnamese bloggers, human rights defenders, and democracy and labor rights activists such as Nguyen Van Dai, Le Chi Cong Nhan, and Nguyen Hong Hai (known as Dieu Cay). During his defense of democracy activists Dai and Nhan at their appeals court trial in 2007, Dinh said: “Talking about democracy and human rights cannot be seen as anti-government unless the government itself is against democracy.”
The outspoken lawyer is also known for his public criticism of controversial bauxite mines in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and of China’s claims to disputed offshore islands in the South China Sea. In interviews with the BBC and Radio Free Asia, Dinh has called for political pluralism to accompany economic pluralism in Vietnam, currently a one-party state controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party.
In articles in the Vietnamese state media, authorities accuse Dinh of providing “distorted information” about Vietnam’s government and its leaders to international press agencies and websites, “colluding” with domestic and foreign “reactionaries” to sabotage the government, and calling for multi-party reforms in published documents, articles posted on the internet, and interviews with foreign media.
Most political and religious prisoners in Vietnam do not have access to independent legal counsel during their trials.
Other lawyers seeking to defend Vietnamese human rights defenders and religious freedom activists have faced threats and harassment. They include Bui Kim Thanh, who was involuntarily committed to a mental institution in 2008 and 2006 because of her defense of farmers seeking redress for confiscation of their land, and Le Tran Luat, who is defending Catholic parishioners from Thai Ha parish in Hanoi calling for return of government-confiscated church properties.
During 2009, police have raided Luat’s law office in Ho Chi Minh City several times, confiscating computers, documents and files. Authorities also prevented him from traveling to Hanoi in March to meet with his clients, detained and interrogated him on several occasions, and pressured him to drop the Thai Ha case. In addition, the state-controlled press has run articles accusing Luat of fraud, and his local bar association in Ninh Thuan has opened an investigation into his activities.
“Le Cong Dinh’s arrest is part of an ongoing pattern of harassment by the Vietnamese government of human rights and democracy activists – and lawyers seeking to defend their rights to free speech,” said Pearson. “Lawyers – like all citizens – have the right to exercise free speech and peacefully express their views.”