Seven-Year Prison Term for Dissident Seen As Show of Leniency in Vietnam

By Patrick Goodenough | April 5, 2011 | 4:35 AM EDT

Dissident lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu is escorted out of a courtroom after being convicted of spreading propaganda against the state. He was sentenced to seven years in prison in Hanoi on Monday, April 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thong Nhat)

( – A Vietnamese court characterized a decision to jail a prominent pro-democracy dissident for seven years as a lenient sentence reflecting the fact the convicted man is the son of a communist stalwart.

The jury in the Hanoi City People’s Court Monday described the case against Cu Huy Ha Vu as serious and his actions as dangerous to society, the official Vietnam News Agency (VNA) reported.

“However, taking into account the fact that his family made outstanding service to the nation, the court arrived at the seven-year sentence.”

Last January another dissident was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for the same offense – “propaganda against the socialist state” – which can reportedly lead to sentences of up to 12 years.

Legal scholar Vu, 53, is the son of a well-known poet who was an associate of Ho Chi Minh.

Arrested last November, he was accused of posting propaganda against the state on the Internet.

“These writings and interviews distorted the Party and State’s guidelines and policies, defamed the government and State institutions and blackened the Vietnamese people’s resistance war,” said VNA.

Duy Hoang, a U.S.-based spokesman for the banned pro-democracy group Viet Tan, said thousands of Vietnamese had gathered outside the court building in Hanoi in a show of support for Vu.

“Rather than respecting the right of citizens to peacefully assemble, security police broke up the gathering and detained dozens of individuals,” he said.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the sentencing and also troubled by “the apparent lack of due process in the conduct of the trial, and the continued detention of several individuals who were peacefully seeking to observe the proceedings.”

Toner called for the release of Vu and “all other prisoners of conscience,” saying the conviction raised serious questions about Hanoi’s commitment to reform.

“No individual should be imprisoned for exercising the right to free speech.”

Dozens of Vietnamese democracy and human rights advocates, writers, bloggers and anti-corruption campaigners were harassed or arrested in a crackdown that worsened last year, even as U.S.-Vietnam ties continued to strengthen, 15 years after the normalization of relations between the two former enemies.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both visited Vietnam during 2010, in Clinton’s case twice.

Viet Tan urged governments and human rights organizations to condemn Hanoi’s actions, and called on Vietnamese to use social media “to continue discussing the issues that affect the future of the country which Cu Huy Ha Vu helped to raise.”

A recent report by Viet Tan highlighted the way the Internet, and especially the social-networking site Facebook, is empowering Vietnamese citizens despite intermittent government attempts to block the site since late 2009.

The report argued that the government’s intervention was in fact backfiring.

“Students and young people who normally would have shied away from oppositional activities began organizing on Facebook to protest the block,” it said.

“By filtering access to Facebook, it appears the Vietnamese government has confirmed the law of unintended consequences: Vietnamese are gathering in public squares online to demonstrate against government censorship.”

In a speech on Internet freedom last February Clinton mentioned several countries where repressive regimes are trying to stifle online expression, including Vietnam, where she said “bloggers who criticize the government are arrested and abused.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow