Political activists Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Tien Trung, Le Thang Long and Le Cong Dinh stand at the dock during their trial at the People's Court in Ho Chi Minh city on January 20, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - This week's convictions and heavy sentences for four Vietnamese democracy activists, including the prominent human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, highlighted the climate of increasingly harsh political repression in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said today after the release of its World Report 2010.

The 612-page World Report 2010, the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. In Vietnam, the report says, the government arrested and imprisoned dozens of democracy activists linked to opposition parties, independent bloggers, land rights protesters, and members of unsanctioned religious organizations during 2009.

"With its treatment of peaceful critics, the Vietnamese government seems determined to stand out as one of the most repressive countries in Asia," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "We'd be thrilled if the Vietnamese government proved us wrong, but there are no signs that it will reverse its increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent."

In the lead-up to a key Vietnamese Communist Party congress in 2011, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the Vietnamese government will intensify its campaign to silence government critics and curb social unrest in an effort to quell any potential challenges to its one-party rule.

Away from the public spotlight, in 2009, the police cracked down on farmers protesting land grabs in the Mekong Delta, on Catholic parishioners in central and northern Vietnam opposing government confiscation of church properties, and on Montagnard activists in the Central Highlands resisting government control of their churches.

The four activists just sentenced to prison - Le Cong Dinh, Nguyen Tien Trung, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, and Le Thang Long - were tried in Ho Chi Minh City on January 20 and 21 and received prison sentences ranging from five to 16 years. They were arrested during May and July for alleged links with the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam. They were accused of "colluding" with Vietnamese activists based abroad to create anti-government websites, post critical articles on the Internet, and incite social instability, and charged with attempting to overthrow the government under article 79 of Vietnam's penal code. A fifth defendant, Tran Anh Kim, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison under article 79 on December 28.

On January 14 and 15, the Gia Lai provincial court sentenced two Montagnard Christians to prison, for nine and 12 years respectively, allegedly for organizing a "reactionary underground" network in violation of the country's unity policy.

"Rights-respecting governments should speak up to protect peaceful activists and rights defenders in Vietnam and insist that the government abide by its international commitments," Adams said. "Donors have been far too quiet about rights in recent years, but Vietnamese activists say that they will never succeed without consistent support from influential governments."

Vietnamese courts sentenced at least 20 government critics and independent church activists to prison during 2009 on vaguely worded national security charges, according to the World Report. These include nine dissidents from Hanoi and Haiphong convicted in October for disseminating anti-government propaganda under penal code article 88. Their sentences are expected to be upheld in hearings before Vietnam's Supreme Court this week even though the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined last year that five of the defendants had been detained arbitrarily.

Hundreds of other peaceful political and religious activists are serving long prison sentences in Vietnam. Religious freedom deteriorated during 2009, Human Rights Watch said. The government targeted religious leaders and their followers who advocated civil rights, religious freedom, and equitable resolution of land disputes.

There were also clashes between police and thousands of Catholic parishioners in Quang Binh protesting government confiscation of church properties, and government-orchestrated mobs violently dispersed followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Buddhist monk who has advocated more religious freedom.

In the Central Highlands, authorities continued to arrest Montagnard Christians suspected of belonging to unregistered house churches considered subversive by the government, or of planning land rights protests or conveying information about rights abuses to activists abroad. On several occasions the police beat and shocked Montagnards with electric batons when they refused to sign pledges to join government-sanctioned churches.

During the review of Vietnam's rights record by the UN Human Rights Commission in May, Vietnam defiantly rejected recommendations by UN member states to allow groups and individuals to promote human rights, express their opinions, and express public dissent. The government also refused to issue invitations to visit Vietnam to UN rights experts covering freedom of religion, expression, torture, and violence against women.

Vietnam's antipathy toward free expression and other fundamental rights does not bode well for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Vietnam now chairs, Human Rights Watch said. Vietnam has signed the ASEAN Charter, a legally binding agreement that commits member states to "strengthen democracy, enhance good governance, and protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms."

"By locking up peaceful rights defenders, democracy activists, and cyber-dissidents, the Vietnamese government is clearly flouting its promises to ASEAN and the international community," Adams said.