On 27 Sep, 2012 – In an unrelenting campaign against freedom of expression, six social activists were dealt severe prison terms this week following hurried trials. Three dissident bloggers and three Catholic activists were convicted under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code, a vague and overly broad provision that is often abused by the authorities to prevent ‘propaganda against the state’ and suppress freedom of expression. On Monday, 24 September, bloggers Nguyen Van Hai (Dieu Cay), Ta Phong Tan, and Phan Thanh Hai were arrested and subsequently convicted in a trial that lasted only a few hours in Ho Chi Minh City. The three, who are leaders of the Club of Free Journalists, were sentenced under Article 88 for their online writings on corruption, injustice, and foreign policy. Sentences ranged from 4 to 12 years’ imprisonment.
Shortly thereafter, on Wednesday, 26 September, at the People’s Court of Nghe An, Catholic youth activists Dau Van Duong and Tran Huu Duc had their appeals rejected, and Chu Manh Son had his initial sentence reduced only by six months. They were convicted for distributing pamphlets that encouraged citizens to avoid parliamentary elections. Their sentences now range from 2.5 to 3.5 years in prison.
“This has been a dark week for Vietnam and the right to freedom of expression within the country. The Vietnamese authorities are pushing forth a merciless agenda to black out all forms of dissent, and their one tactic is to shroud legitimate exercises of free speech under the guise of ‘anti-state propaganda’. It is clear that Hanoi is afraid of what the people have to say, and that they are willing to silence the people at great costs,” said Dr Agnès Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director.
Human rights defenders, activists, writers and bloggers are predominately charged under Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which is vaguely defined and prohibits ‘psychological warfare’ and the spread of ‘fabricated news.’ It also makes illegal the ‘making, storing and/or circulating’ of documents ‘with contents against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.’
The families and friends of those convicted have also been met with aggression by the State. Several family members were arrested, and subsequently released, in order to stop them from attending the trial. In a tragic act of desperation, Ta Phong Tan’s mother had set herself on fire on 30 July 2012 to protest her daughter’s detention and trial, and later died from injuries sustained during the protest. According to Ta Phong Tan’s sister, their family was under constant state surveillance.
The Internet has increasingly become the space for Vietnamese civil society to expose corruption and voice their concerns, given that the press is strictly controlled by the State. The government’s crackdown picked up in 2009, with many human rights and pro-democracy bloggers being persecuted for their online activism.
ARTICLE 19 calls upon the Vietnamese government to cease its use of heavy-handed intimidation tactics and vague legislation to silence freedom of expression and political opposition. Furthermore, ARTICLE 19 calls for the government to drop all charges against the arrested activists and for their immediate release, and to stop all forms of intimidation and harassment against their families.