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(Bangkok) - Vietnam should immediately release the human rights and environmental defender Cu Huy Ha Vu, Human Rights Watch said today. Dr. Vu was arrested on November 5, 2010, and is being prosecuted under article 88 of the penal code for "propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam." His trial is scheduled to start on April 4, 2011, at the People's Court of Hanoi.

During the last five years, Vu has emerged as one of the most prominent defenders of cultural, environmental, and human rights in Vietnam.

"Cu Huy Ha Vu is being tried for his political bravery in peacefully challenging abuses of power, defending victims of land confiscation, and protecting the environment," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government makes a mockery of its international human rights obligations when it persecutes activists like Dr. Vu who try to use the legal system to demand official accountability and rule of law."

Lt. Gen. To Lam, a deputy public security minister, and Lt. Gen. Hoang Kong Tu, deputy director of Security General Department II, also part of the Public Security Ministry, said at a November 6, 2010 news conference that charges had been filed against Vu for "producing documents that opposed the State of Vietnam, employed propagandistic rhetoric as a form of a psychological warfare, demanded the overthrow of the regime and the realization of pluralism and a multi-party system, opposed the interest of the nation and called for foreign intervention."

Vu was also accused of "producing documents that spread false and fabricated information, distorting the leadership and management of the state, causing confusion for the people, provoking, advocating for exhorting against the state and slandering and offending the honor of the leaders of the state." Among the documents listed by Tu were the two lawsuits Vu filed against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, in June 2009 and in October 2010.

Vu's defense lawyers and members of his family, including his wife, Nguyen Thi Duong Ha, who is a lawyer, have launched a vigorous and creative campaign in his defense. Vu, an artist with a doctorate in law from the Sorbonne, comes from a highly placed family that includes senior members of the Vietnamese Communist Party and former revolutionaries. His prominence seems to have protected him from government sanction for his activism until recently.

Vu became known nationally in May 2005 for filing a lawsuit against the People's Committee of Thua Thien-Hue for granting permission to build a hotel resort on Vong Canh Hill, a protected cultural heritage site. His lawsuit against a municipal administrative government was unprecedented in the history of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. While his lawsuit was ignored by the court, the resort plan was eventually abandoned.

Vu is most famous for his two lawsuits against the prime minister, the first targeting him for signing Decision 167 in November 2007, which allowed controversial bauxite mining operations in Vietnam's Central Highlands. Vu filed his suit with the People's Court of Hanoi on June 11, 2009. It was dismissed four days later. He filed it again with the People's Supreme Court on July 3, 2009, but it was ignored. On October 21, 2010, Vu filed a second lawsuit against the prime minister for signing Decree 136 in 2006, which prohibits class-action petitions. Again, his lawsuit was ignored. Vu was arrested two weeks later.

In addition, Vu is known for his public criticism of high-ranking government officials. In June 2010 he denounced Lt. Gen. Vu Hai Trieu of the Public Security Ministry for allegedly authorizing cyber-attacks against politically sensitive websites disapproved of by the Vietnamese government and for condemning the general secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, Le Thanh Hai, in August 2010 for allegedly confiscating land from relatives of martyred soldiers.

On October 16, 2010, Vu's law firm took on the defense of Catholics from Con Dau parish in Da Nang who were arrested in May 2010 after police forcibly dispersed a funeral procession to a cemetery located on disputed land. The People's Court of Cam Le district refused to grant permission for the law firm to represent the families.

"Cu Huy Ha Vu should be commended for using the courts to fight for the rights of people to a healthy environment, freedom of expression, and a fair justice system," Robertson said. "The arrest and prosecution of Dr. Vu sends a message that the justice system serves political interests in Vietnam, and lawyers and activists raise legal complaints at their own peril."

Ill-defined national security crimes in Vietnam's penal code and other laws are regularly used to imprison political and religious dissidents. These include "subversion of the people's administration" (penal code article 79); "undermining the unity policy" (article 87); conducting propaganda against the government (article 88); "disrupting security" (article 89); "fleeing abroad to oppose the government" (article 91); "causing public disorder" (article 245); and "abusing democratic freedoms" of speech, press, belief, religion, assembly, and association to "infringe upon the interests of the State" (article 258).

"Dr. Vu should never have been arrested on such vaguely worded charges in the first place, let alone put on trial," Robertson said. "Vietnam should amend or repeal its broad national security laws instead of using them to silence peaceful government critics. How can Vietnam become a country governed by the rule of law if the government continues to punish legal advocates?"

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