Writer and democracy activist Vi Duc Hoi

(New York) - Vietnam's government should immediately release the writer Vi Duc Hoi, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in January 2011 for "conducting propaganda" against the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals court in Lang Son Province will hear the appeal for his conviction on April 26.

The conviction of Vi Duc Hoi, a former member of the Vietnamese Communist Party, by the Lang Son People's Court was based on the grounds that his articles and internet postings advocating human rights and democratic reforms constituted a national security crime under article 88 of the penal code.

"It is outrageous that Vi Duc Hoi is in prison today for simply publishing his views on human rights and democracy," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government makes a mockery of rule of law when it imprisons former officials and party members for nothing more than their constructive criticism."

By criminalizing peaceful dissent, Vietnam is in violation of its obligations as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Vietnam's own constitution, which both guarantee freedom of expression.

Human Rights Watch also said that the court's order during Vi Duc Hoi's January 2011 trial that he  turn over 56,000,000 VND (US$2,800) that it said he "illegally received" from overseas human rights groups and activists was without any legal basis. The sum included the 2009 Hellman/Hammett grant, an annual writers' prize awarded by Human Rights Watch to persecuted writers around the world.

"Vi Duc Hoi received the Hellman/Hammett award in recognition of his courage as a writer despite harassment and repression by the government," Robertson said. "The government compounds its abuse when it tries to rob someone of funds given in recognition of the persecution he has suffered at the hands of that same government."

There is no provision for levying a monetary fine attached to article 88 of the penal code.

Vi Duc Hoi, 56, is a writer and blogger from the remote province of Lang Son in northern Vietnam near the China border. He is an ethnic Tay, the largest minority group in Vietnam. His essays on democracy, pluralism, and human rights and his memoir, Facing Reality, My Path to Joining the Democratic Movement (Doi Mat: Duong di den voi phong trao dan chu), have been widely circulated on the Internet.

Vi Duc Hoi quietly started supporting calls for respect of human rights and greater democracy in 2006, while still holding important positions in the party and government apparatus in Lang Son. He was the head of the Committee for Propaganda and a member of the Party's Standing Committee of Huu Lung district. After his changing views became known, he was expelled from the party, subject to orchestrated public denunciation sessions, and detained and interrogated. He then publicly affiliated with the dissident To Quoc (Fatherland) bulletin.

In August 2010, Vi Duc Hoi published a fictionalized account of the violent death of 21-year-old Nguyen Van Khuong, who died shortly after being taken into police custody for a routine traffic violation in Bac Giang province in July 2010. It provides a detailed - and ostensibly fictitious - description of police officers beating Khuong to death. News of Khuong's death at the hands of the police had been widely reported in the Vietnamese state press as well as by overseas media, independent bloggers, and international rights organizations, and had caused a mass protest against police brutality by thousands of people in Bac Giang during the funeral procession.

In his 2008 memoir, Facing Reality, Vi Duc Hoi wrote: "The biggest loss for a human being is the loss of the right to be a human being; the biggest criminal is the one who robs others of human rights; the most pitiful person is the one who does not understand human rights; the one who deserves criticism most is the one who forgets human rights; the most cowardly person is the one who accepts the loss of human rights. I once deserved to be criticized and was once a coward."

During the last year, the Vietnamese government has intensified its suppression of independent writers and bloggers who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule. Writers, bloggers, and online activists are placed under intrusive surveillance, detained incommunicado for long periods of time without access to legal counsel, and sentenced to increasingly long terms in prison.

"Vi Duc Hoi deserves better than this," Robertson said. "And so do dozens of other writers and bloggers who find themselves locked up for simply expressing their views on rights and good governance. When Vietnam continues to lock up peaceful dissidents, the rest of the world should question if it can be trusted to take any of its international commitments seriously."

Excerpts from the writings of Vi Duc Hoi

When one realizes and sees the acts of sin committed by a man and yet does not warn him to stop or does not inform others to take precautions to prevent the sin from happening, one also commits a sin. From this simple way of thinking, it is natural that I joined the democracy movement.
: "Facing Reality," part 35, http://viduchoi.blogspot.com/2009/07/oi-mat-35-thay-loi-ket.html

This is the reality: I do not see the Party's "brilliant talent;" instead, I see the Party as an obstacle to development: [through means] such as "socialist orientation" and "intensifying the leadership of the Party." I only hope that the Party eases its grip on the people and leaves them alone instead of being pompous. The Party has caused a lot of suffering already.

Based on this reality, I have decided to separate from the Party. I affirm that I am not betraying the Party. It is the Party that is betraying me and my people. If the Party did exactly as [it states] in its platform, I would serve it to my last breath. I am a person of dignity. I respect the truth and hate lies and deceit.

My decision comes after careful thinking and deliberation. I do not have any motive other than the desire to defend what is right and defend my people. Thus I have decided to devote the remainder of my life to doing something, no matter how trivial, so that when I leave this life, I will have fewer regrets.
Source: "Facing Reality," part 11, http://viduchoi.blogspot.com/2008/12/oi-mat-11.html