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Update: On September 24, 2012, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City convicted blogger Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a Dieu Cay) and sentenced him to 12 years in prison, followed by 5 years’ probation and restricted movement; blogger Ta Phong Tan was sentenced to 10 years in prison, plus 3 years’ probation with restricted movement;  and blogger Phan Thanh Hai (a.k.a Anhbasg) was sentenced to 4 years in prison, plus by 3 years’ probation with restricted movement.

(New York) – Vietnamese authorities should drop all charges against three prominent bloggers and immediately release them, Human Rights Watch said today. The People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City is scheduled to try Nguyen Van Hai (known as Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai (known as Anhbasg), and Ta Phong Tan on September 24, 2012, for violating article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” If convicted, the accused could face up to 20 years in prison.

On September 12, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung personally took responsibility for the crackdown on free expression when he ordered the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Information and Communications, and related offices to shut down political blogs that the government disapproved of, punish those behind them, and prohibit state employees to read and/or disseminate news published on them. The order came amid economic upheaval in Vietnam following a series of arrests of well-connected tycoons and managers of state-owned companies.

“The alleged crime committed by these bloggers is to report stories that the government does not want the Vietnamese people to read,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam’s arbitrary use of vaguely worded national security laws to imprison critics of the government means bloggers are bearing the brunt of this assault on freedom of expression.”

Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan are founding members of the Club for Free Journalists founded in September 2007 to promote freedom of the press, free expression, and human rights. Since the club’s establishment, the authorities have continually harassed, intimidated, and detained independent journalists and bloggers associated with the club.

Police arrested Ta Phong Tan in September 2011 and Phan Thanh Hai in October 2010. Both have been in pretrial detention ever since. Nguyen Van Hai was arrested in April 2008 and sentenced to 30 months in prison on a trumped-up tax evasion charge. After Nguyen Van Hai completed his prison sentence in October 2010, instead of releasing him the authorities filed new charges under article 88. The trial of the bloggers has been postponed three times.

On August 3, 2012, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “particular concern that the upcoming trial of Nguyen Van Hai…, P[h]an Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan for ‘conducting propaganda’ against the Stateis directly linked to their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, including their online publications about social and human rights issues.” On May 3, US President Barack Obama stated that “we must not forget [journalists] like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam.” In April, the US government highlighted Dieu Cay’s courage, making his case the first in a US State Department series of profiles of bloggers and journalists honored on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

In a distressing development, on July 30, Ta Phong Tan’s mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, 64, set herself on fire outside the headquarters of the Bac Lieu province Communist Party branch. She died later the same day. Her self-immolation was reportedly provoked by police harassment of her family and the upcoming trial of her daughter. Bloggers and human rights advocates such as land rights activist Bui Thi Minh Hang and former political prisoners Truong Minh Duc and Truong Minh Nguyet who tried to attend the funeral were harassed and intimidated by the police.

“Faced with looming economic crises, multiple scandals, and political infighting, Vietnam’s authorities should want a more open flow of information in the country,” Adams said. “Vietnam needs to hear the message that silencing critics and locking up bloggers is not going to help the country solve its problems.”

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