HANOI (Reuters) - A Vietnamese Facebook user who campaigned online for the release of his brother jailed for criticizing the government was handed on Tuesday the relatively light sentence of 15 months of house arrest for "abusing" his freedom.
The case follows a sharp increase in arrests and prison terms for government critics in the past few years that has alarmed the United States, a former enemy that is struggling to build a case for deeper trade ties with a country steadfast in its intolerance of dissent.
A court in Long An province ruled that Dinh Nhat Uy's Facebook effort to overturn his brother's conviction in May last year for anti-state propaganda fell foul of the same law, one that activists and Western governments say is being used to silence critics of Vietnam's one-party, communist rule.
In its verdict, the court said Uy had abused "the freedoms of an ordinary citizen that disrupted the government, government officials, organizations and other citizens", according to Uy's lawyer, Ha Huy Son.
The case against Uy was the first indictment related to the use of Facebook in Vietnam, which has strict laws governing use of the Internet. Facebook is hugely popular, accessible to most of the country's estimated 30 million internet users, or about a third of the population.
That number is one of the highest in the region and a challenge for the authorities to police at a time when discontent simmers over graft, land ownership laws and the government's handling of a slowing economy and relations with neighboring China.
Uy's sentence was, however, one of the most lenient handed down by courts in Vietnam for breaches of article 258 of the criminal code.
Though free speech is enshrined in the constitution, activists and bloggers brave enough to criticize the authorities have been jailed for up to four and a half years. The maximum prison sentence is seven years.
A small protest outside the Long An court was broken up by police, with several arrests made, according to a blog maintained by anti-258 activists. In a video clip posted on YouTube people were heard chanting "Freedom for Dinh Nhat Uy, Freedom for Vietnam".
Reuters could not verify its authenticity.
Uy's brother, Dinh Nguyen Kha, was jailed for eight years by the same court for anti-state propaganda when he handed out leaflets critical of policies on land ownership, religion and sovereignty disputes with China over the South China Sea.
An appeal court in August commuted that to four years.
Even dissent related to rival China is extremely sensitive in Vietnam, where authorities have sought to suppress anti-Beijing demonstrations in what some diplomats and analysts say are moves to prevent a protest culture taking root.
The ruling against Uy could complicate U.S. efforts to strengthen diplomatic, trade and military relations with Vietnam as part of a broader bid to boost its influence in Asia, where rival power China has been courting governments with trade deals and investment.
The United States and Vietnam have been locked in complex negotiations about a Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that requires the approval of the U.S. Congress, which has historically taken a tough stand on doing business with countries with poor human rights records.
This month, the U.S. embassy in Hanoi described as "disturbing" a 30-month jail term for tax evasion given to a human rights activist and blogger who criticized the government.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)