In Vietnam, blogger means ‘in danger’
MANILA, Philippines - Three Vietnamese bloggers/dissidents/activists were sentenced up to 26 years imprisonment after a trial that lasted just a few hours on Monday September 24. They were high-profile blogger Nguyen Van Hai (aka Dieu Cay or Peasant’s Pipe); Ta Phong Tan, a policewoman-turned-dissident; and Phan Thanh Hai, the only one to plead guilty.
A lawyer acting for Dieu Cay assailed the kangaroo court that “did not allow discussions between lawyers and prosecutors.” Dieu Cay was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, Tan was given 10 years, while Hai was sentenced to 4 years.
As 44-year-old Tan was led out of court, she was heard screaming, “Objection!” A former party member and police officer, Tan is a journalist and blogger, who documented social injustice on her blog Conglysuthat (Justice and Truth).
She was arrested in September 2011, according to the France-based exile support group Vietnam Committee on Human Rights. It is unclear if formal charges were previously filed against her. Her mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, died after immolating herself in July, in front of government offices in Bac Lieu province in southern Vietnam. She did it in protest of the charges against her daughter.
Hai, 43, is a lawyer. His license, however, was never issued and the Ministry of Justice never gave a reason for it. He wrote under the penname AnhBa Saigon and posted on the blogsite of the Free Journalists Club, mostly on finer points of Vietnamese laws like the right to strike and the rights of an accused.
Those who knew him suspected he was refused a license because he participated in the 2007 protests.
The eldest of the three, former soldier Dieu Cay is 60, and is a founder of the Free Journalists Club. He was accused of being the main administrator of the blog which no longer exists.
A popular blogger, he wrote on matters considered sensitive to Vietnam's Communist Party-run government. He wrote about protests held against China and the calls to boycott the Beijing Olympic torch relay when it passed through Ho Chi Minh City in 2008.
Fearing trouble with its giant neighbor, the Vietnamese government arrested Dieu Cay on the day the Beijing Olympics torch passed through Saigon. Dieu Cay was first arrested on April 19, 2008 and was charged with tax fraud and sentenced to two-and-a-half years imprisonment.
Authorities continued to hold him without explanation until his prison term expired on Oct 18, 2010.
The trio was charged with engaging in propaganda against the one-party communist state. In recent years, Vietnamese authorities have pursued bloggers and online writers, subjecting them to extended interrogations, imprisonment, and in some instances, physical abuse.
The authorities have also invoked Articles 79 (subversion of the people’s administration) and 88 (conducting propaganda against the state) of the penal code to imprison bloggers and online activists.
The US embassy immediately issued as statement after the trial, expressing concern about the conviction of the bloggers.
“The Government of Vietnam should release Dieu Cay and his fellow bloggers and Free Journalists Club members Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan. As President [Barack] Obama said on World Press Freedom Day, we call upon all governments to take the necessary steps to create societies in which independent journalists can operate freely and without fear.”
Obama made special mention of Dieu Cay then. “We must not forget others like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam,” he said.
The blogger's former wife, Duong Thi Tan and her son, Nguyen Tri Dung, were detained for several hours so they could not attend the court proceedings on Monday, September 24.
When they left the police station at 1:35 pm, they were accosted by men in civilian clothes who grabbed and tore down the young man’s shirt. His black T-shirt bore the message “Freedom for patriots; Free Dieu Cay, Ta Phong Tan, AnhBaSG.”
Vu Van Hien, a security lieutenant-colonel at the police office, told them, “Freedom is a penis!”
Fighting for freedom
An estimated 400 security officials blocked access to the court and confiscated cameras and mobile phones from bystanders who attempted to take photos. More than 20 people, including Nguyen Van Hai’s wife and son, as well as Tan’s two sisters, were taken into custody.
Phan Thanh Hai’s wife was allowed to attend the trial but was prohibited from wearing a T-shirt bearing the words, “Freedom for patriots.”
Many bloggers and freelance journalists were prevented from going to the court. Some were beaten like poet Bui Chat (founder of Giay Vun Publishing in Vietnam, who was the recipient of this year's IPA Freedom to Publish Prize), bloggers An Do Nguyen and Dung Aduku.
The bloggers declared they would come to the court to support the 3 activists in spirit, as they were angered by the kangaroo court which issued heavy jail sentences. They replaced their avatar or profile pictures with the trio’s pictures, and posted complaints about the police and the court.
Some suggested using the word “penis” instead of “freedom,” following what the police said. Others said they only have the “freedom to be arrested” and the “freedom to be silent.” They likewise said the court is open to the public “for detaining” but not “for attending.”
The long jail terms are “absolutely outrageous,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, adding that they “show how deep-seated the Vietnam government crackdown on basic human rights really is.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the harsh prison sentences handed down to the 3 prominent Vietnamese online journalists, while Reporters Without Borders was outraged by the harsh and unjust jail sentences.
Vietnam is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet” and, after China and Iran, is the world’s 3rd largest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, with at least 19 netizens currently detained for freely expressing their views online.
“These shocking prison sentences confirm our worst fears – that the Vietnamese authorities have chosen to make an example of these bloggers, in an attempt to silence others,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Vietnam. “The sentences reflect the dire and worsening situation of freedom of expression in Vietnam,” he added. - Rappler.com
Hanh Nhan is presently an intern at Rappler.