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(New York) – Vietnam should drop charges and free two activists arrested in October 2012 for “conducting propaganda against the state. Nguyen Phuong Uyen and Dinh Nguyen Kha are scheduled to be tried in the People’s Court of Long An province on Thursday, May 16, 2013.

According to state media, Nguyen Phuong Uyen and Dinh Nguyen Kha were arrested for handing out leaflets that “distort the Party and the State’s policies related to religion and land, and exhibit a twisted viewpoint regarding the Spratly and Paracel islands and the border land between Vietnam and China.” The state media accused the two of “calling and agitating people to protest against the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

“Putting people on trial for distributing leaflets critical of the government is ridiculous and shows the insecurity of the Vietnamese government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Writing things that do not please the government is only a crime in a dictatorship.”

The leaflets, signed by a group called Patriotic Youth, accused the Vietnamese Communist Party of allowing China to take over the country by occupying islands, leasing forest land, and exploiting natural resources. The group urged people “to take to the streets” against the Vietnamese Communists, who are “lackeys” of the Chinese.

Patriotic Youth is an overseas advocacy group. In October 2012, a Vietnamese court sentenced two musicians, Tran Vu Anh Binh (also known as Hoang Nhat Thong) and Vo Minh Tri (a.k.a. Viet Khang), six and four years respectively for writing songs critical of the government and for being associated with Patriotic Youth.

Nguyen Phuong Uyen, 21, from Ham Thuan Bac district, Binh Thuan province, is a student at the Ho Chi Minh University of Food Industry. The police arrested Phuong Uyen on October 14, 2012 in Tan Phu district, Ho Chi Minh City, and took her to the police station in Tan Phu district’s Tay Thanh ward without informing her family. Phuong Uyen’s family and friends launched an intensive search for her by making inquiries at Tay Thanh police station and alerting the public via non-state channels, including the BBC and Radio Free Asia. It was not until eight days later that an officer at Tay Thanh police station told Phuong Uyen’s mother that she had been transferred to the police of Long An province. On October 23 the Long An police acknowledged that Phuong Uyen had been charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code. According to the indictment, Nguyen Phuong Uyen was officially arrested on October 19, leaving five days unaccounted for by officials.

Nguyen Phuong Uyen’s mother claims that on a visit on April 26, 2013, she saw many bruises on her daughter’s neck, upper chest, and arms. Her mother said that Phuong Uyen told her that she was beaten and kicked severely in the stomach by in detention. It was only when she fainted that prison guards came in to stop the beating and took her to see a doctor.

Dinh Nguyen Kha, 25, is from the city of Tan An, Long An province. According to the police, his job is to fix computers. His family says he is a student at the Long An University of Economics and Industry. The police told state media that on October 10, 2012, with the help of Nguyen Phuong Uyen, Dinh Nguyen Kha allegedly dropped 2000 anti-government leaflets at An Suong overpass in Ho Chi Minh City. Police also alleged that Dinh Nguyen Kha previously conducted experiments with making explosives. He was arrested on October 11, 2012. According to a copy of the indictment, on September 29, 2012, the People’s Court of Tan An city convicted and sentenced Dinh Nguyen Kha to two years in prison for “intentionally causing injuries [to others].”

Given his conviction in late September, it was unclear why he would have still been free to drop leaflets on October 10, Human Rights Watch said. Dinh Nguyen Kha has also been charged with “terrorism” under article 84 of the penal code in a separate case. Human Rights Watch has no information about the explosives or terrorism charges, but opposes criminal charges for dropping leaflets, which is an act of peaceful expression.

“Lawyers and doctors should have unrestricted and confidential access to Nguyen Phuong Uyen and Dinh Nguyen Kha to discuss the charges against them and to investigate claims of mistreatment,” said Adams. “Vietnam should stop using politically-controlled courts to convict critics of the government.”

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