Vietnam jails journalists for 'propaganda' critical of state

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HANOI, Jan 5 (Reuters) - A court in Vietnam on Tuesday sentenced three freelance journalists known for their criticism of government to between 11 and 15 years in prison, after finding them guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda.

Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan were convicted of "making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state" at a one-day trial in Ho Chi Minh City, the Ministry of Public Security said.

Dung established the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam in 2014, which police said had sought regime change.

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Despite sweeping economic reform and increasing openness to social change, Vietnam's ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and tolerates little criticism.

The party, under the leadership of 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong, has intensified a crackdown on dissent ahead of its five-yearly congress due to be held later this month.

Dung was jailed for 15 years and Thuy and Tuan 11 years each. Reuters could not immediately reach their lawyers for comment.

Washington-based Radio Free Asia said Thuy had contributed commentary to RFA’s Vietnamese Service, and condemned the convictions.

"The harsh sentencing of Thuy and two other independent journalists is a blatant assault on basic freedoms and flies in the face of the freedom of expression enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution," RFA President Stephen Yates said in a statement.

RFA said two other RFA Vietnamese contributors are already serving jail terms in Vietnam: Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger who was sentenced last March to 10 years, and Nguyen Van Hoa, a videographer who was sentenced in November 2017 to seven years.

Amnesty International said the latest sentences underscored the government's contempt for free media, particularly ahead of the congress.

"Even by its own deeply repressive standards, the severity of the sentences show the depths being reached by Vietnam's censors," said its deputy regional director, Emerlynne Gil.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the charges "bogus."

"If the ruling party is so assured in its leadership, it should demonstrate its confidence by respecting civil and political rights, ending its tight control of the press, and allowing independent journalists to freely voice their opinions," he said.

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Reporting by Khanh Vu; Editing by Martin Petty

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