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(Bangkok) – Vietnamese authorities should immediately release four Catholic activists accused of conducting propaganda against the state and drop the charges against them. The People’s Court of Nghe An is scheduled to hear the cases against them on May 24, 2012.

The four– Dau Van Duong, Tran Huu Duc, Chu Manh Son, and Hoang Phong – come from the Catholic community of Vinh in Nghe An province. Authorities arrested them for allegedly distributing pro-democracy leaflets.

“It’s absolutely shameful that the Vietnam government is putting these Catholic activists on trial, and may send them to prison for years for nothing more than expressing their views and distributing leaflets,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecuting these four activists shows the contempt Vietnam has for freedom of religion and expression.”

In the past, the four activists had participated in volunteer activities, including encouraging women not to have abortions, donating blood, and volunteering to help orphans and victims of natural disasters. Authorities arrested Dau Van Duong, 24, a student at the Nghe An Trading and Tourism Vocational College, and his cousin Tran Huu Duc, 24, a student at the Vietnam-German Vocational Technical College of Nghe An, on August 2, 2011. The next day, authorities arrested Chu Manh Son, 23, a student from the Vinh Medical University. Hoang Phong, 25, a recent graduate from the Vinh University of Technology Education, was arrested on December 29.

The Vietnamese government often uses article 88 of the penal code, “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” to imprison bloggers, critics, and activists arbitrarily.  Article 88 calls for punishment of between 3 and 20 years in prison for such acts as “propaganda,” “circulating documents or cultural products,” or “psychological warfare” against the government.

In 2011 Vietnamese courts used this provision to convict at least 10 bloggers and activists for expressing their views including the legal advocate Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, bloggers Vi Duc Hoi, Lu Van Bay, Ho Thi Bich Khuong, Nguyen Ba Dang, and others.

In March 2012 the People’s Court of Nghe An convicted two other Catholic activists, Vo Thi Thu Thuy and Nguyen Van Thanh, under article 88. State media reported that the two were affiliated with Father Nguyen Van Ly, and were accused of distributing anti-government leaflets. Vo Thi Thu Thuy was sentenced to five years in prison, and Nguyen Van Thanh to three years.

Three prominent bloggers, Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai (a.k.a Anhbasg), and Ta Phong Tan, have also been indicted under article 88. The three are founding members of Club for Free Journalists, established in September 2007 to promote independent journalism and freedom of expression.

At least another 12 Catholic bloggers and activists, including the prominent bloggers Ta Phong Tanand Le Van Son, are in detention pending investigation or waiting trial. Many of those arrested are affiliated with the Redemptorist Thai Ha church in Hanoi and Ky Dong church in Ho Chi Minh City. Over the last year, both churches have regularly held prayer vigils calling for the safety of activists in prison or in detention. On May 20, Thai Ha church held a vigil for the four activists who will be tried on May 24.

“Article 88 is the equivalent of a legal buzz-saw, designed to cut down those who freely criticize or question the government,” Robertson said. “Vietnam’s leaders should repeal this draconian law and listen to their people, rather than muzzling and imprisoning them for thinking differently.”


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