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(New York) - A Ho Chi Minh City appeals court should reverse the conviction of three high-profile democracy advocates at a hearing scheduled for May 11, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today. Anything less than a complete reversal would be a new landmark of Vietnam's intolerance for political pluralism, Human Rights Watch said.

The three activists - Le Cong Dinh, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, and Le Thang Long - were convicted in January 2010, on charges of attempting to "overthrow the government" under article 79 of Vietnam's penal code for supporting the formation of an opposition party to the Vietnam Communist Party. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 16 years. Thuc, who maintained his innocence at the trial and claimed his confession was elicited under duress, received the harshest sentence. A fourth activist, Nguyen Tien Trung, did not file an appeal. The appeal of a fifth defendant, Tran Anh Kim, who was sentenced in December 2009 to five and a half years in prison under article 79, was rejected in a hearing on May 1.

"The judicial process for political prisoners in Vietnam is usually a road to nowhere," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The long sentences stand as a testament to the lack of tolerance in Vietnam for citizens peacefully expressing their views. These activists and scores of other peaceful government critics unjustly imprisoned in Vietnam should be freed immediately."

Dinh, Thuc, Long, and Trung were accused of colluding with Vietnamese activists abroad to organize the Democratic Party of Vietnam, which like all opposition political groups is banned in Vietnam. Vietnamese authorities deemed irrelevant the fact that the effort was completely nonviolent. The indictment of Dinh - a respected lawyer and US trained Fulbright scholar - stated he used "peaceful evolution" and "democracy and human rights as a cloak to carry out his subversive plots."

The political atmosphere in Vietnam is becoming increasingly tense as factions jockey for position in advance of next year's 11th Vietnamese Communist Party congress, which will determine the party's leadership for the next five years. An attempt to clamp down on information about the recent string of political trials of dissidents, in which at least 17 persons have been sentenced to prison since October, shows the Vietnamese government is deadly serious about suppressing open discussions about political prisoners, human rights, and peaceful opposition, especially via the internet.

Government harassment of dissident bloggers and cyber attacks on their websites have contributed to a dearth of news about this important appeals court hearing for the three activists on independent Vietnamese-language blogs and websites that provide alternatives to the censored news in the state-controlled Vietnamese media.

"Vietnam's international development partners need to speak out when prominent peaceful critics are jailed in a mounting political crackdown," Adams said. "Support for Vietnam's courageous democracy activists, internet writers, and human rights defenders not only makes a difference to the people being harassed and imprisoned, but it is carefully noted by government officials in Hanoi."

Vietnam is serving as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) through 2010. The ASEAN Charter, adopted by all ten member nations in November 2007, states clearly a commitment to "adhering to the principles of democracy...and respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

"By holding these show trials and sentencing non-violent political opponents to long jail terms, Vietnam is demonstrating its contempt for core principles in the ASEAN Charter," Adams said. "How can Vietnam claim to care about the vision of a people's ASEAN when it throws some of its most courageous citizens in jail?"

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