(Update: Adds comment from Viet Tan)
(CNSNews.com) – The imprisonment of three Vietnamese bloggers has focused fresh attention onto the gulf between practices of Hanoi’s communist regime and democratic norms the Obama administration says it is promoting as part of a deepening bilateral relationship.
The conviction Monday of the woman and two men came two months after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to the country, raised concerns directly with her hosts about the case.
Convicted by a Ho Chi Minh City court of “conducting propaganda against the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Nguyen Van Hai, 60, was sentenced to 12 years; Ta Phong Tan, 44, to 10 years, and Phan Thanh Hai, 43, to four years in prison. The prison terms will each be followed by terms of house arrest ranging from three to five years.
The three are associated with the “Free Journalists Club,” a website set up in 2007, and the charges related to posts on that site as well as on their own blogs. According to the press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, subject matter included official corruption, injustice and Vietnam’s territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
It said Nguyen Van Hai (whose pen name is Dieu Cay) has already been incarcerated since April 2008, “on a trumped-up charge of tax fraud designed to silence a troublesome dissident,” while Phan Thanh Hai was arrested in October 2010.
The watchdog said the tough sentences “are symptomatic of a nervousness and determination to crack down more than ever at a time of divisions within the regime and corruption cases involving senior officials including the prime minister – clearly embarrassing cases that were revealed by bloggers and citizen journalists.”
The charges against the bloggers were brought under article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which deals with “spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among people” and “defaming the people’s administration.”
The official Vietnam News Agency said the trio had posted “documents distorting the party and state, sowing suspicions and eroding people’s trust in the administration.”
Their offense was considered to be “extremely serious, constant and [one that] causes negative impact on national security and the image of Vietnam in the international community.”
Prosecutors said the activities were carried out “in collusion with Vietnamese reactionary organizations in exile.” The communist party organ Tuoi Tre said two of the three were also accused of taking part in a non-violent activism course in neighboring Thailand, hosted by Viet Tan, a U.S.-based group which Hanoi considers a terrorist organization.
“The heavy sentences against these three bloggers, as well as the detention of many other activists over the last year, show just how fragile and insecure the Hanoi regime is,” Viet Tan spokesman Duy Hoang said Wednesday.
“A regime respecting human rights and confident of popular support does not imprison citizen for "anti-state propaganda,” he told CNSNews.com.
Hoang said that since Dieu Cay was first detained in 2008, “countless other ‘Dieu Cays’ have taken up blogging about corruption, Vietnamese territorial sovereignty, the need for political reform. Hanoi may be able to repress individual bloggers today but it is totally powerless in the long run against the citizen journalism movement and civil society flourishing online.”
At a press briefing Tuesday, a Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman defended the trial.
“In Vietnam, citizens’ rights to freedom are clearly stipulated in its constitution and legal documents, respected and secured in reality,” Luong Thanh Nghi said. “Vietnamese citizens exercise all their rights within the framework of the law.”
Critical official reaction to free expression goes to the very top. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s office earlier this month lashed out at blogs focusing on official corruption, calling them part of a “wicked plot” by “hostile forces.”
Reporters Without Borders says Vietnam is the country with the third largest number of people detained for online activism, after China and Iran.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in a statement Monday urged the Vietnamese authorities to release the three, “who appear to have done nothing more than exercise their right to freedom of expression.”
Nuland recalled that Clinton during her July visit had said protection of human rights is a necessary step in developing a closer, more mature bilateral relationship.
In Hanoi, Clinton told reporters she had raised with her Vietnamese counterpart concerns about human rights, in particular “restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club.”
Official Vietnamese media coverage of her visit ignored those comments altogether, however, and within days of her departure, a Vietnamese court sentenced three other activists – also convicted under article 88 – to between four and five-and-a-half years’ imprisonment.
Critics believe Vietnam has paid no price for its human rights violations even as it reaps the rewards of expanding economic and political ties with the U.S., a process that began under President Clinton in 1995, continued under President Bush and has accelerated under the current administration.
President Obama has welcomed Vietnam into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious proposed trade agreement. Of the TPP’s 11 current members or negotiating partners, Vietnam is one of just two that are not democracies (the tiny sultanate of Brunei is the other).
Earlier this month a delegation from Vietnam’s only permitted trade union, a communist party affiliate, visited the U.S. at the invitation of the AFL-CIO to promote ties between the two organizations.
“The U.S. side spoke highly of the achievements recorded by Vietnam’s trade union, including revising the labor law and expressed its hope to further step up cooperation with the Vietnamese side,” the Voice of Vietnam radio reported at the end of the visit.
On September 11 the House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which links increases in non-humanitarian U.S. assistance to certifiable improvements in Hanoi’s human rights record. The bill, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) was sent to the Senate for consideration.