(New York) – Vietnamese authorities should quash the politically motivated convictions of two bloggers and release them from prison, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 22, 2016, the Higher People’s Court of Hanoi will hear the appeal of prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy who ran a website critical of the Vietnamese government.

Police arrested Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as Ba Sam, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy in May 2014 and charged them under article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code for “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interest of the state.” In March 2016, the People’s Court of Hanoi sentenced Nguyen Huu Vinh to five years in prison and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy to three years. Nguyen Huu Vinh’s wife, Le Thi Minh Ha, said that his family has not been allowed to see him for more than 11 months, despite multiple requests.

Supporters of Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy call for their freedom outside the court during their trial in March 2016. 

“Vietnamese authorities have decided it is a crime to provide independent information to the Vietnamese public,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The appeals court now has an important opportunity to uphold the right to free speech in Vietnam.”

Nguyen Huu Vinh, 60, is a former police officer and a Communist Party member from a prominent communist family. In September 2007, he founded the blog Ba Sam (Talking Nonsense). Using the motto “Pha vong no le” (“breaking the slavery ring”), the stated goal of Ba Sam was to bring news from various perspectives to its readers. Ba Sam provided links to “hot news” – sometimes accompanied by short comments from the blog’s administrators – about politics, economics, culture, society, the environment, and world events from a variety of sources, including state-controlled media and individual blogs. It also published critical commentary and Vietnamese translations of overseas articles related to Vietnam’s social and political situation. Over the six years it was published up until the arrests of Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, Ba Sam had attracted several million readers in Vietnam and abroad.

During the bloggers’ trial in March, police put many people under house arrest so they could not go to the court to show solidarity. Nevertheless, dozens of bloggers and rights activists managed to stage a protest calling for their release on the sidewalk across from the court. The police briefly detained several people, including prominent rights activist Nguyen Quang A.

In 2016, repression of Internet writers has accelerated. During the first nine months of the year, Vietnamese courts have convicted and sentenced to prison terms at least 18 bloggers and activists for violating a series of articles in the penal code that criminalize freedom of speech and religion.

“Vietnam has more than a thousand state newspapers, websites, and radio and television stations that provide news approved by the authorities, and yet it prosecutes the courageous bloggers and journalists unwilling to publish the official line,” said Adams. “Vietnamese leaders should know that locking up these bloggers and journalists will not stop them from informing the Vietnamese people about the state of their country. International donors and trade partners should publicly press Vietnam to stop persecuting its citizens for peacefully exercising their rights.”