Vietnamese authorities should reverse the convictions of three young labor activists sentenced to long prison terms, Human Rights Watch said today. The three were arrested in February 2010 for distributing leaflets and helping to organize a strike of 10,000 workers at the My Phong shoe factory in Tra Vinh. The People's Court of Tra Vinh will consider their appeal on March 18, 2011.

Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, 30, Do Thi Minh Hanh, 26, and Doan Huy Chuong, 26, were convicted on October 26, 2010, by the same court of "disrupting security and order against the people's administration," under article 89 of the penal code. Hung was sentenced to nine years in prison. The other two were each sentenced to seven years. None of them had defense lawyers at the trial, nor were they allowed to speak in their own defense.

"All that Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, Do Thi Minh Hanh, and Doan Huy Chuong did was assert the rights of Vietnamese workers to peacefully organize, assemble, and strike for better pay and working conditions," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It was outrageous for the Vietnamese government, which claims an ideological commitment to workers, to charge them in the first place. The appeals court should reverse this injustice immediately."

Under Vietnamese law, workers are prohibited from forming independent unions of their own choosing. Instead, all unions must be registered and affiliated with the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, an official labor confederation controlled by the Communist Party.

Chuong is one of the founders of the United Workers-Farmers Organization (UWFO, also Hiep Hoi Doan Ket Cong Nong). He was imprisoned in 2006 for 18 months on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms."

Hung and Hanh were both active supporters of the petitioners' movement called Victims of Injustice, which helps impoverished workers and landless farmers seek redress from the government. Hung is also a member of the pro-democracy Bloc 8406.

According to family members of the three labor organizers, prison officials pressured the three not to exercise their right to appeal their convictions. Family members also said that during a monthly visit in November, prison officials warned the families that they were only allowed to discuss the health of their loved ones and not to raise the subject of defense lawyers.

The families did engage defense lawyers, but as of January 17, the defense lawyers had not been granted accesses to the defendants, despite the fact that the appeal court was to hear their cases on January 24. The next day, the families submitted a joint complaint to various authorities, including the Minister of Public Affairs and the People's Procuracy of Tra Vinh province, asking the court to respect the defendants' right to legal representation and to postpone the appeal hearing. The court then changed the appeal trial date to March 18.

"Vietnam's treatment of workers and their organizations too often violates the right to freely choose a union, and the country's laborers are all the poorer for that policy," Robertson said. "There is no justification for the long prison sentences meted out to these grass-roots labor organizers, and they should be freed at once."