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VIETNAM: Pro-Democracy Activists’ Trial Sparks Flurry of Blogs

Chan Ngon

HO CHI MINH CITY, Jan 27 2010 (IPS) - This month’s trial of four pro-democracy activists in this major Vietnamese city has generated a flurry of online posts from concerned citizens seeking to express their sentiments against the country’s communist regime though knowing full well the risks involved.

“In the past months, similar trials have been staged to punish those who attempt to criticise the government even if it’s done peacefully,” remarked blogger ‘Song Hung’ (which translates as ‘Living Heroically’).

The “accusation, verdict, sentences are decided beforehand” and neither the press nor family members of the accused are allowed to witness the trial, said Song.

On Jan. 20, a court in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam’s largest city and business capital, charged four individuals with subversion – or attempting to “overthrow the government” or, more specifically, promoting human rights and a multi-party system. The court sentenced them to five to 16 years in prison. The decision followed a vast crackdown on those critical of the regime.

Le Cong Dinh, 41, a U.S-educated prominent human rights lawyer, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, a well-known Internet entrepreneur and blogger, Nguyen Tien Trung, 23, a French-trained information technology expert, and Le Thang Long, Thuc’s assistant, were arrested separately in May and July 2009.

Other bloggers – the ‘left side’ of the press, as they are called in Vietnam, as opposed to the ‘right side’ or the official one – were also quick to post their reactions online, often using pen names.

“The judgment disillusions anyone who hopes for a sound legal framework for Vietnam. It also shows the necessity of an independent, equitable and transparent legislature that only a democratic system elected freely by the majority could bring up,” wrote activist ‘Dinh Minh Dao’ on ‘Dan Chim Viet’ (‘Birds from Vietnam’), a Website run by activists in Poland.

“(A country) could not maintain its standing when it arrests and convicts individuals for ‘trying to overthrow the regime’ when their sole weapons are computers and the Internet,” said Nguyen Ngoc Giao, a well-known activist/writer, in his article ‘A trial for subversion or the trial of the regime,’ published on Jan. 24 on ‘Dien Dan’ (‘Forum’), a Website operated by Vietnamese intellectuals.

Online posters are prohibited from making public comments critical of the state. Many of them have been directly warned by the police, after reading their critical entries, to stay away from “sensitive issues.” Blogger ‘Me Nam’ (‘Mother Mushroom’), for instance, is careful to heed the warning, but said her sympathy lay with the convicted activists.

In August last year, the mother of a five-year-old child was arrested from her house by 17 police officials after posting entries on sensitive issues about China-Vietnam relations. More fortunate than blogger Dieu Cay, she was not sent to prison but had to promise not to write anything “sensitive.”

Blogs have become an important source of news and tool of expression in Vietnam, where peaceful attempts to exercise freedom of expression are punishable by harsh prison terms.

“Vietam is one of the world’s worst jailers of bloggers, and recent actions have underscored that reputation,” said Bob Dietz, Asia programme director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom group.

The recent conviction of the four activists echoes a similar incident in 2009, when more than 20 people were sentenced to prison on vaguely worded charges of ‘national security’ breach, including two ethnic minority Christians who got nine and 12 years, respectively.

During the Jan. 20 trial, retired officials and communist cadres were invited to sit on all the benches to ensure that there would be no vacant seats for the defendants’ family members,” said ‘Song Hung’ on his blog. In her statement to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the mother of one of the accused said the communist cadres seen during the trial were her neighbors.

Lawyer and convicted activist Dinh denied the charge of subversion against him. As he declared to the court, “From the bottom of my heart, I and these three other defendants had no intention to overthrow the government.” His and Trung’s statements were telecast on the state-owned Vietnam Television (VTV).

Dinh, however, admitted that he violated the law when he called for a multi- party political system and democracy. Article 4 of Vietnam’s Constitution reserves the leadership role within the state and society to the Communist Party, making it illegal for anyone to support or call for a different political party.

The former Fulbright scholar, who studied law at Tulane University in New Orleans, added that “during my studies overseas, I was influenced by Western attitudes toward democracy, freedom and human rights.” He longs to see what he believes are fundamental human freedoms upheld in his own country.

In closed-door discussions in Ho Chi Minh City, many said the charges against political activists like Dinh and Trung reflect the communist leaders’ fears of “peaceful evolution,” a concern periodically repeated in the official press to refer to the destabilising influence of contacts with the West.

War veteran and former communist member Tran Le, 67, has his own, though not entirely, different take on the issue. “They (the communist leadership) just want investments from the West, not their ideology,” he said.

Thanks to its “open-door policy,” Vietnam has attracted in the last decade an impressive flow of foreign direct investment (FDI). Last year, foreign investors pumped a total of 8 billion U.S. dollars into the country, according a report released in September by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Amid an impressive economic growth, projected at 6 to 6.5 percent this year, arrests of dissidents continue unabated for the “crime” of espousing freedoms for the Vietnamese people.

“I don’t know how Vietnam could chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) when it does not like to hear about democracy and human rights,” Tran Le said. Based on the regional bloc’s charter, member states are legally bound to commit to “strengthen democracy, enhance good governance, and protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Tran Le said as long as the Vietnamese government could boast about its economic and huge FDI and trade inflows, it will still find it comfortable to pursue its peculiar “socialist democracy.”

Western diplomats have also expressed grave concern on the one-day trial more than a week ago. U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Michael Michalak, said he was deeply troubled by the Jan. 20 conviction of the four activists and the apparent lack of due process in the conduct of the trial. His statement was posted on “illegal” Vietnamese websites and blogs.

“These convictions run counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they also raise serious questions about Vietnam’s commitment to rule of law and reform,” he said, as he urged the Vietnamese government “to release these individuals and all other prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.”

Blogger ‘Song Hung’ quoted British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis as saying “nobody should be imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions. Verdicts like these only serve to harm Vietnam’s international standing.”

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Nga, on Jan. 22, went on VTV to say that “the arrest, investigation, trial and sentence of the defendants have been carried out according to the Vietnamese and International Laws.” She also accused the United States and the European Union of “issuing remarks lacking in goodwill, and of infringing into Vietnam’s internal affairs.”

Nga’s statement, ironically, created awareness among the Vietnamese people of the hitherto unknown “unfriendly” reaction of the West to the controversial trial, which was sparsely reported by the state-run media.

In an article posted on his blog, ‘An inconvenient man,’ Greg Rushford, an American national, faulted even the West, in particular the American Chamber (AmCham) of Commerce in Hanoi for taking a safe stance on the Jan. 20 trial. It “hopes to maintain a low public profile on important rule-of- law issues even when AmCham’s own best-and-brightest members are involved,” he said.

One of the convicted activists, Dinh, had worked as an international trade lawyer at a major U.S. law firm, White & Case, before becoming a co-founder and managing partner of D.C. Law, with headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City. As an active member of AmCham, he was often present in its events and other activities.

“Perhaps encouraged to believe that it can safely violate its citizens’ freedoms of speech without serious objections from the business community, the authorities in Hanoi have recently squared the circle,” Rushford said.

Others in Vietnam, however, seem oblivious to the political and economic ramifications of the trial. Nguyen Toan, 26, a third-year student at the HCMC College of Human Sciences, appears more interested in the main personalities involved in the trial. “They are very brave. They are already (or could be) successful and wealthy, still they want to fight for the ones who are not so fortunate like them,” he said.

“Many (people) go abroad to study, but few of them come back. Of the few who come back, not many dare to promote the freedom and democratic values that they have experienced overseas,” he added.

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