Vietnam jails prominent human rights lawyer, five other activists

HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnamese human rights lawyer and activist Nguyen Van Dai was jailed for 15 years on Thursday, his wife said, along with five other activists who were given prison terms of seven to 12 years.

Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Van Dai (C) stands at a court in Hanoi, Vietnam April 5, 2018. VNA/Lam Khanh via REUTERS

Dai, 48, was charged in a Hanoi court with activities “aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” at a tightly guarded trial in the communist country.

“I’m very disappointed with the trial and strongly protest it,” Dai’s wife, Vu Minh Khanh, said. “He is innocent and he pleaded innocent at the trial. He will continue to fight and will appeal the verdict”.

Despite sweeping reforms to its economy and showing openness to social change, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and has zero tolerance for criticism.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States was “deeply troubled” over the conviction of the six, adding that people had a “right to the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

She said in a statement that Washington was concerned about “a disturbing trend of increased arrests, convictions and harsh sentences of peaceful activists” in Vietnam and urged the country to “release all prisoners of conscience immediately.”

Commenting on the trial, foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told reporters on Thursday that Vietnam’s efforts to promote human rights was “widely recognized” by the international community.

“In Vietnam there is no such thing as a ‘prisoner of conscience’, and there’s no such thing as people being arrested for ‘freely expressing opinion,’” Hang said.

In March 2013, Dai and others formed the “Brotherhood for Democracy,” which conducted anti-government activities to “build multi-party democracy” in Vietnam, according to a copy of the official indictment against Dai seen by Reuters.

“The Vietnamese government should thank them for their efforts to improve the country instead of arresting and putting them on trial,” Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said.

Dai had been awaiting trial since his arrest in December 2015. He previously served four out of five years of a prison term he received in 2007 for “anti-state propaganda”.

Hundreds of police were posted outside the court during Thursday’s trial and a planned march by families of the detained activists was stopped.

Hanoi-based activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen said police arrived at his house as the trial began and followed him for the entire day.

“They followed me to my office, invited me to coffee, waited outside my office, followed me back home, and now they’re waiting outside my house again,” said Tuyen, who added that police had put glue in the lock of the house of a fellow activist to stop him going out.

“They did it at night,” Tuyen said. “He had to break it to get out”.

Reporting by James Pearson; Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Peter Cooney