HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (Reuters) - A Vietnamese court Wednesday sentenced four democracy activists to jail for subversion, drawing fire from Western diplomats who called for their release.
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, an Internet entrepreneur, was given 16 years in jail, activist Nguyen Tien Trung got seven years, Le Thang Long, a colleague of Thuc‘s, was handed five years, and U.S.-trained lawyer Le Cong Dinh, the best known of the defendants, also got five years.
The charge of subversion under Article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code carries a maximum penalty of death.
The case has attracted attention abroad in part because of the involvement of Dinh, who had represented democracy activists as well as a state-backed farmers association, and Trung, who had met U.S. President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Some analysts have said the case was part of a clampdown on dissent in the sensitive months before the ruling Communist Party’s national congress, which will anoint new leaders and set the tone for future policy next January.
BBC World broadcasts of news about the trial were blocked in Vietnam.
The trial in Vietnam’s rainy commercial hub lasted about eight hours. The convictions and sentences took longer to read before the court than the recess during which they were written.
“There are serious concerns about the whole process,” Danish Ambassador Peter Lysholt Hansen told reporters. He was one of a small number of diplomats granted permission to watch the trial with journalists via closed-circuit television in separate room.
“We will very strongly urge the government of Vietnam to grant amnesty to all four.”
The U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Kenneth Fairfax, said the United States had “deep concern” over the arrests and convictions of people exercising their right to free speech and called for their immediate and unconditional release.
The defendants were accused of activities aimed at ending communist rule, including posting articles online, cooperating with “hostile” groups abroad and, in Dinh’s case, attending a class on non-violent political change.
Speaking calmly and confidently with both hands on the dock, Dinh, 41, admitted to joining the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam and violating Article 79, but he asked for leniency.
“I did not have the intention of overthrowing the people’s administration and I also did not have a hostile attitude toward the state,” he said, adding he had been influenced by Western ideas during his time abroad.
Dinh appeared noticeably thinner than in photos of him before his arrest in June.
Trung, 26, who started a pro-democracy youth group and, like the others, was a member of the Democratic Party, admitted to breaking the law and expressed remorse, saying his family and friends had been affected.
Thuc, 43, fought the charges, insisting before the court he had not broken the law. Long, 42, said he had not sought to overthrow the government and that he was wrongly accused. He also asked the judges to review the process by which he was investigated, which he said was unlawful.
Prosecutors originally charged the four under the lighter and more commonly used Article 88 of the penal code, which outlaws spreading “propaganda against the state,” but the charge was ratcheted up in October.
One diplomat who has followed the case said there were numerous fundamental errors in the way the trial was conducted.
“They were so far from a fair trial for it to be useless. It’s a show trial, a sham trial and nothing else,” said the diplomat, who declined to be named.
Police confiscated journalists’ cameras and recording devices. Several of Thuc’s relatives were banned from the trial and stood in the rain outside the court waiting for information.
Security was tight at the courthouse, with more than a dozen police outside the gate and around the facility. About six police with riot helmets manned a security checkpoint inside the gate.
Editing by Bill Tarrant