This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A court in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City on Friday handed stiff prison terms to a group of eight activists convicted of planning protests on Vietnam’s National Day on Sept. 2, 2018.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent has deteriorated sharply this year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists and Facebook personalities, and activists say things are likely to get worse in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in January.
Arrested in September 2018, the eight were named by police as members of the Hien Phap (Constitution) Group, a network of activists formed on June 16, 2017 to call for the rights to freedom of speech and assembly promised under Article 25 of Vietnam’s constitution.
All eight were convicted of “disturbing security” under Article 118 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code, and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years and six months to eight years in a trial from which family members were barred.
Defense lawyer Dang Dinh Manh slammed the court’s decision in an interview with RFA’s Vietnamese Service following the trial, calling the imposed penalties “severe and heavy-handed.”
“The argument by the defense noted that the defendants were only preparing to exercise their rights to protest, but the court accused them of plotting to disrupt security, and that they were planning to make trouble and obstruct state-owned organizations,” Dang said without elaborating.
Lengths of electric cable carried by the defendants in the protest had been meant for use only in defending themselves against attackers, Dang added.
Receiving the longest prison terms on Friday were Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh and Hoang Thi Thu Vang, who were sentenced to eight and seven years respectively.
Do The Hoa, Le Quy Loc, and Ngo Van Dung were each sentenced to five years, while Tran Thanh Phuong was handed a prison term of five years and six months and Ho Dinh Cuong was sentenced to four years and six months.
Doan Thi Hong, the mother of a baby not yet three years old, was given a prison term of two years and six months.
Family barred from trial
Though Friday’s trial was declared open to the public, family members were not allowed to attend, Ngo Van Dung’s wife Huynh Thi Kim Nga told RFA on Friday.
“They said that if we had letters summoning us or inviting us to the trial, we would be allowed to attend, but those letters were never sent to us,” Huynh said, adding, “They also said that we were being kept away from the trial because of concerns over COVID-19, but I don’t think this was true, because hundreds of police officers were present there.”
The Hien Phap group had previously played a major role in calling for widespread protests that rocked Vietnamese cities in June 2018 in opposition to a proposed cybersecurity law and a law granting concessions of land to Chinese businesses, and several of its members are now serving long terms in prison.
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 activists, writers, and bloggers.
According to the rights group Defend the Defenders, Hanoi is currently detaining at least 238 prisoners of conscience.