(Bangkok) - The imprisonment of Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu on anti-government propaganda charges has only raised the fervor of a remarkable outpouring of popular support for his release, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Vu, 53, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in April 2011, has extraordinarily broad support among diverse sectors of Vietnamese society. He has become a cause célèbre through the power of the internet, creating an unprecedented human rights challenge to the Vietnamese government, Human Rights Watch said.
The 59-page report, "Vietnam: The Party vs. Legal Activist Cu Huy Ha Vu," describes the unique elements that have made this Vietnam's most high-profile political trial in decades. They include Vu's legal challenges to promote human rights, official accountability, and environmental protection against the country's political elite, including Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Vu's family's revolutionary credentials and his own elite background make him one of the most prominent people to have publicly questioned the rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).
"Dr. Vu's conviction is yet another black mark on Vietnam's dismal human rights record and shows that the government will go to whatever lengths necessary to silence a prominent critic," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But in their appetite for retribution, the Vietnamese authorities may have bitten off more than they can chew."
After Vu's arrest in November 2010, his family initiated a tenacious public advocacy campaign for his release that led to an unprecedented expression of popular support for Vu from religious groups, influential bloggers, prominent retired army officials, and ordinary citizens.
Domestic outcry over Vu's trial has saturated Vietnamese-language blogs, webpages, and online publications. Within days after the trial, the popular website Bauxite Vietnam initiated an online petition calling for the nullification of the trial and the immediate release of Vu. In only three weeks, the "Petition to Free Citizen Cu Huy Ha Vu" was signed by nearly 2,000 people, many of them in Vietnam. They include senior communist party members, retired high-ranking army officers, government officials, white-collar professionals, artists, journalists, academics, members of religious congregations, and ordinary workers and farmers. At least a dozen people report that they have been harassed by the police for signing the petition.
The US State Department expressed "deep concern" over the trial's proceedings and its outcome, and added that the case "raises serious questions about Vietnam's commitment to rule of law and reform. No individual should be imprisoned for exercising the right to free speech." The European Union said, "This conviction is not consistent with the fundamental right of all persons to hold opinions and freely and peacefully express them."
Human Rights Watch found clear procedural violations during the trial on April 4, which lasted less than six hours. The Hanoi People's Court refused the defense team's request for access to the documents on which the prosecution's case was based. Judge Nguyen Huu Chinh expelled a defense lawyer from court for continuing to request the documents. The remaining defense lawyers persisted in seeking the documents and when their efforts were in vain, they ultimately walked out in protest.
"While Dr. Vu carried out his activism entirely through legal channels, the authorities suppressed his efforts to advance Vietnam's justice system in a trial that lacked due process safeguards," Robertson said. "Vietnam's leaders should heed calls by the international community to reverse this travesty of justice and free Dr. Vu immediately."
Following his conviction, Vu wrote to Vietnamese authorities, refusing to accept his sentence and filing an appeal. His request is still being considered by the government.
Human Rights Watch recommends the immediate release of Vu because his arrest, detention, indictment, and conviction are based on his peaceful exercise of his right to information, and his right to freedom of opinion, expression, and association. These rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, as well as in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty that Vietnam joined in 1982.
"Vietnam should listen to its citizens who are petitioning for Dr. Vu's release rather than harassing them and treating them like criminals," Robertson said. "The authorities' actions do real damage to Vietnam's already failing reputation as a country that respects rule of law and its international human rights obligations."