This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A Vietnamese court sentenced pro-democracy activist Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong to eight years in prison and three years probation Tuesday, a sentence his lawyer said is too harsh for criticizing the government on Facebook.
The sentence, issued as Vietnam continues to crack down on online dissent ahead a major Communist Party congress in January, appears to be Vietnam’s longest ever jail term for content posted on social media.
Nguyen was convicted of “making, storing, distributing, or disseminating information, documents, and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” in violation of Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code” after a three-hour trial at the Lam Dong provincial People’s Court. He was arrested on Sep. 23 2019.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), during one of his livestream videos Nguyen said: “I am not certain that the entire state apparatus is corrupt, but I am 100 percent certain that those who have been involved in corruption are Communist Party members. Vietnam only allows one single party and does not allow any competing opposition.”
The rights group said that on his account, which had more than 10,000 followers, he discussed a wide range of sensitive topics such as land confiscation cases and the cases of Vietnamese political prisoners. He also voiced his support for protests in Hong Kong over mainland China’s imposition of an extradition law, and a change in government in Venezuela.
Defense lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng told RFA’s Vietnamese Service after the trial that the evidence presented by the prosecution was inadequate.
“As for their conclusion, they did not clarify how any of Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong’s 366 posts and 98 video clips seriously endangered the lives of the people. But they still used them as evidence,” the lawyer said.
“The Don Duong district’s information and culture division took issue with the [content posted to Facebook] and the communications and information department assessed the violation,” he said, arguing that an independent body should have conducted the investigation.
According to a report in Vietnam News, Nguyen at the trial admitted to all his violations, adding that he had not intended to oppose the state, and only intended to share his privately held views on the social network.
NGO: speech is not a crime
Human Rights Watch Tuesday condemned the court’s decision, calling for Nguyen’s immediate release.
“Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong is headed to prison because he dared to express his opinions on Facebook. This is outrageous and unacceptable,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s Deputy Asia Director in a statement.
“Vietnam must recognize that expressing political views contrary to communist party line should not be a crime. He acted in line with his right to freedom of expression that Vietnam promises, but has fail to uphold for many decades,” he said.
“The government of Vietnam should cease its crackdown against bloggers and activists, and free all people they have locked away because they dared to say what they think,” Robertson said.
The 88 Project, an Illinois-based NGO that tracks Vietnamese political prisoners, last month reported that in 2019 an increasing number of people had been arrested under Article 117.
“Many of those charged with this crime had no history of activism and were solely targeted for their peaceful expression online. Forty percent of the people arrested in 2019 were online commentators,” the NGO said.
RFA has reported on about a dozen recent cases in which activists or ordinary citizens ran afoul of the law for Facebook posts.
Vietnam, with a population of 92 million people, of which 55 million are estimated to be users of Facebook, has been consistently rated “not free” in the areas of internet and press freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group.
Dissent is not tolerated in the communist nation, and authorities routinely use a set of vague provisions in the penal code to detain dozens of writers and bloggers.