Amnesty International has called for the immediate and unconditional release of four Vietnamese prisoners of conscience jailed on Wednesday for their peaceful pro-democracy activism.
In a trial lasting one day, a court in Ho Chi Minh City convicted the four dissidents of "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration" and sentenced them to between five and 16 years in prison.
"These people should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone charged and sentenced. The trial allowed no meaningful defense for the accused, demonstrating all too clearly the lack of tolerance for free speech and peaceful dissent, and the court's lack of independence," said Brittis Edman, Amnesty International's Viet Nam researcher.
The sentences come against a backdrop of escalating repression against critics of the government. A new wave of arrests began in May 2009, targeting independent lawyers, bloggers and pro-democracy activists critical of government policies. Over 30 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars after unfair trials.
The court convicted Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, a former internet company owner and businessman, to 16 years' imprisonment and five years of house arrest upon release. IT engineer and blogger Nguyen Tien Trung, 26, was sentenced to seven years in prison, while prominent lawyer Le Cong Dinh, 41, and businessman Le Thang Long, 42, each received five year sentences.
Last month, the prosecution decided to change the original charges from Article 88, "conducting propaganda" against the state, to the more serious Article 79, "carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration."
"The trial made a complete mockery of justice, disregarding fundamental human rights such as the principle of presumption of innocence and the right to defense", said Brittis Edman.
The prosecution gave no evidence to support the indictment, and the judges deliberated for only 15 minutes before returning with the judgment, which took 45 minutes to read and clearly had been prepared in advance of the hearing.
Family members, diplomats and journalists observed the trial from an adjacent room through a video link. Many had been turned away, including several family members of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc.
The trial also shows the urgent need to reform the serious short-comings of the 1999 Penal Code, the vague provisions of which criminalize peaceful dissent, contrary to Viet Nam’s obligations under international law.
Article 79 Carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration, says that:
Those who carry out activities, establish or join organizations with intent to overthrow the people's administration shall be subject to the following penalties:
Organizers, instigators and active participants or those who cause serious consequences shall be sentenced to between 12 and 20 years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment;
Other accomplices shall be subject to between five and 15 years of imprisonment.