(New York) - Vietnam should immediately release six peaceful democracy activists facing trial on groundless charges of threatening national security, in contravention of its obligations under international and Vietnamese guarantees of free expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

The six activists, arrested during a government crackdown that started last September, include the well-known novelist and journalist Nguyen Xuan Nghia, 60. A recipient of the prestigious Hellman/Hammett writers award in 2008, Nghia is a leader of the banned pro-democracy group, Block 8406, and an editorial board member of the underground democracy bulletin, To Quoc (Fatherland).

The activists' alleged crimes, according to a copy of a May 17 Ministry of Public Security investigation report obtained by Human Rights Watch, include distributing leaflets, hanging banners on bridges, writing poems and articles, and disseminating articles on the internet calling for democracy, human rights, and a pluralistic political system. In an indictment dated July 3, the six were charged with conducting anti-government propaganda under article 88 of Vietnam's penal code, which carries a sentence of up to 12 years' imprisonment.

"There's no question that the only offense these people have committed is to peacefully advocate for political pluralism and human rights," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "They should be released immediately."

According to the police report, the group hung pro-democracy banners on bridges in Hai Duong and Haiphong cities in August 2008 and planned and conducted demonstrations against China and the Beijing Olympics in 2007 and 2008. In addition, the police report said, the six regularly met to exchange ideas, maintained relationships with democracy activists in Vietnam and abroad, and provided information to foreign radio stations and newspapers.

"Since when does writing poems or hanging banners on a bridge calling for democracy threaten national security?" asked Adams. "Once again the Vietnamese government is treating the expression of opinions as a crime. Vietnam needs to stop locking people up for their political beliefs."

Focusing on Nghia as the alleged leader of the group, the police report details 57 pieces Nghia wrote from 2007 until his arrest in 2008, including poetry, literature, short stories and articles, whose purpose, the report alleged, was to "insult the Communist Party of Vietnam, distort the situation of the country, slander and disgrace the country's leaders, demand a pluralistic and multiparty system ... and incite and attract other people into the opposition movement."

The five other activists named in Nghia's indictment, who are expected to be tried with him, include veteran democracy activist Nguyen Van Tinh, 67; land rights activists Nguyen Kim Nhan, 60, and Nguyen Van Tuc, 45; university student Ngo Quynh, 25, and engineer Nguyen Manh Son, 66.

Four others arrested last September have not yet been indicted and remain in detention at Thanh Liet Provisional Detention Center (B-14) in Hanoi, They are writer and internet blogger Pham Thanh Nghien, teacher Vu Hung, poet Tran Duc Thach, and engineer Pham Van Troi.

In addition to the ten activists arrested in September 2008, at least seven other dissidents have been arrested in a fresh round of arrests that began in May 2009.

Others at possible risk of arrest for suspected links to Nghia's group include veteran democracy activists Nguyen Thanh Giang, Vu Cao Quan, and Catholic priest Phan Van Loi. They were identified in the police report and indictment for follow-up investigation.

Vietnam's past track record suggests that the upcoming trials will have politically determined verdicts and will be marked by violations of international fair trial standards. Vietnamese courts lack independence and impartiality. Foreign press, diplomats, and international observers are often barred from attending trials of dissidents, who have had difficulty accessing legal counsel.

"Vietnam's donors should raise these cases directly with government authorities and strongly condemn this crackdown on free expression," said Adams. "Respecting basic rights and freedoms must go hand-in-hand with any strategy for economic development."

The Vietnamese government has repeatedly refused to revise or repeal national security provisions in its penal code, such as article 88, which criminalizes peaceful dissent, most recently during the review of its rights record in May by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). In September, the HRC will issue its outcome report on Vietnam's Universal Periodic Review, through which the rights records of all 192 UN member states are examined every four years.

The Vietnamese government has already indicated that it intends to reject key recommendations made by the HRC to lift its restrictions on freedom of expression and association, independent media, and human rights defenders.

"Rather than working with the UN to bring its laws and practices into compliance with international standards, the Vietnamese government continues to use these laws to silence government critics," said Adams. "Even when Vietnam's rights record is in the spotlight at the UN, it refuses to adopt recommendations to improve its record."

Vietnam's Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a state party, oblige the government to respect freedom of expression, belief, and opinion.