Authorities in Vietnam on Monday sentenced three administrators of a Facebook online political discussion group to lengthy prison sentences in yet another example of Hanoi’s disregard for freedom of expression, their defense lawyers told RFA.
The court in Ho Chi Minh City convicted the three administrators of “abusing democratic freedom rights to infringe upon the benefits of other individuals and/or organizations,” under Article 331 of the Vietnam 2015 Penal Code, a vaguely worded law often used to lock up bloggers and other peaceful critics of the Vietnamese government.
Defense lawyer Nguyen Van Ming told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that Nguyen Dang Thuong received 18 months, Huynh Anh Khoa 15, and Tran Trong Khai 12, for leading a Facebook group called Economic-Political Discussion.
The group had a following of 46,000 Facebook users prior to shutting down after Nguyen and Huynh were arrested on June 13. The two lawyers do not know exactly when Tran was arrested because they have not been allowed to read his case file.
Nguyen Van Ming and colleague Dang Dinh Manh had been defending the two men but the defendants had refused to meet with them in the last phase of their case.
“The other lawyer and I had been invited to defend this case, and even though this is not a matter of national security…, the District 8 judicial authority asked the defendants to refuse representation during the three investigation phases,” Nguyen the lawyer told RFA Monday.
“At the request of their families, the other lawyer Dang Din Manh and I came to the court, but we weren’t allowed to take part in the trial. When I arrived, the court’s gate was closed and the security officers didn’t allow me in,” he said.
Nguyen then told the security guards that he wanted to be present for the trial, which is a public matter, and he would not act in his capacity as a defense lawyer.
“But the security official said, ‘Please understand, this is a sensitive case,’ and they wouldn’t let me in. Finally, I just stood outside the gate,” Nguyen said.
Huynh’s wife, Pham Thi Bao Ngoc, told RFA that none of the three men on trial were allowed to even speak in their own defense.
“The judge said the three of them displayed a clear sign of discontent with the government, advocated for a multiparty system, offended the honor of the party, opposed the state, distorted Vietnamese history, and posted on Facebook fake materials or information aimed at distorting the facts of Vietnamese history,” said Pham.
“The judges accused them under the cybersecurity law of offending the honor of the party, state, the prime minister, and former president Ho Chi Minh,” she said.
The controversial cybersecurity law took effect in Jan. 2019 and grants authorities “sweeping powers to censor online content,” with technology companies required to identify users and remove politically sensitive postings.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Eugene Whong.