Vietnamese authorities declared three bloggers guilty of “spreading propaganda against the state” after a brief, high-security trial in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, sentencing them to between four and 12 years in jail, followed by house arrest.
All three are founding members of the Club for Free Journalists, a group established in 2007 to promote liberty of expression in the tightly controlled communist country. They were accused of posting political articles on this organisation’s website, and for writing about forbidden subjects such as state corruption and social justice on their individual blogs.
One of the bloggers, former policewoman and Communist Party member Ta Phong Tan, 44, “reportedly broke down in the court room after hearing her sentence of 10 years,” wrote Mark McDonald for the International Herald Tribune. Tan’s mother committed suicide in July by self-immolating in front of a municipal building – an act that McDonald affirms was in protest of the charges against her daughter, though the BBC reports that the reason remains unclear. On her blog, Truth & Justice, Tan had written more than 700 articles on issues such as official corruption, the mistreatment of children, and unfair taxation of the poor, according to Human Rights Watch.
The blogger who received the four-year sentence, 43-year-old legal activist Phan Thanh Hai, was reportedly the only of the three to plead guilty to the charges against him, and to promise the court that he would have “no further contact with anti-state people.” Hai, who wrote under the name Anh Ba Saigon, allegedly blogged about controversial foreign policy matters such as bauxite mining and maritime disputes with China. Like Tan, he received a Hellman/Hammett award last year – a prize presented by Human Rights Watch to politically persecuted writers.
The third blogger, Nguyen Van Hai (who writes under the name Dieu Cay, meaning The Peasant’s Pipe), was sentenced to 12 years in prison after a judge allegedly cut his defence short due to a “time limit.” Dieu Cay, a former soldier who spent 30 months in jail between 2008 and 2010, reportedly told the court: “I just feel frustrated by injustice, corruption, dictatorship which does not represent the state but some individuals.” On World Press Fredom Day in May, U.S. President Barack Obama had referred to Dieu Cay’s 2008 sentence, saying that it had coincided with “a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam.”
The United States Embassy in Hanoi condemned Dieu Cay’s treatment as inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international treaties, and the State Department released a statement criticising the Vietnamese government for its restrictions of freedom of expression, and calling for the release of the three “prisoners of conscience.” The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, also called for the bloggers’ release. Organisations such as the Committee to Project Journalists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch further denounced the convictions, deploring the country’s clampdown on free speech. Vietnam is currently ranked 172 out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ press-freedom index.
“The Vietnamese state is controlling every aspect of society,” wrote Tan in a 2010 blog post, after the government had accused her of “distortion” for an earlier article about meeting Karl Marx in a dream. “This Vietnamese state even controls people’s dreams. The people only have the right to dream as they are told.”