Vietnam Putting Professor on Trial for Online Dissent

By Patrick Goodenough | September 30, 2010 | 4:43 AM EDT

President Obama takes part in a working lunch with ASEAN leaders, including Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, in New York City on September 24, 2010. (Image: White House)

( – Less than a week after Vietnam’s president met with President Obama to discuss issues including human rights, the communist government in Hanoi has announced it try a dissident math professor on political charges that can carry the death penalty.

Pham Minh Hoang, 55, has been indicted under an article in Vietnam’s penal code outlawing “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” He was arrested on August 13.

State-run media Wednesday quoted a Public Security Ministry official, Col. Nguyen Xuan Mung, as saying that Hoang, since returning to Vietnam in 2000 after studying in France, had carried out activities on behalf of a “terrorist organization,” Viet Tan.

The activities included writing 29 articles over the past eight years and sending them to Viet Tan for posting online. Mung said the articles contained “distorted information” on the policies of the Vietnamese state.

He also attended a course in Malaysia last year, along with his wife and another man, to discuss issues including non-violent activism aimed at changing the country’s political system.

And in the early part of this year, Hoang held small-group courses on recruiting members for Viet Tan, Mung stated.

He said Hoang, while in custody, had expressed remorse for violating the law and had written an appeal for clemency.

Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party), which is banned in Vietnam, says it promotes peaceful change to a multiparty democracy. The organization has members in the United States, France, Australia and other countries with sizeable Vietnamese-origin communities.

U.S.-based Viet Tan representatives accused the government of convicting Hoang through state media despite his political activities being “entirely peaceful.”

“Every person has the right to publish articles, attend political meetings and discuss issues that affect their country,” said spokesman Duy Hoang.

“Once again, the Vietnamese Communist Party has demonstrated that its more interested in maintaining dictatorial power than permitting an open debate on the serious issues facing the country,” Duy Hoang added.

Viet Tan said its materials on “non-violent tactics used in advocating for peaceful change” had long been available on its Web site. “Everyone can freely access these documents and see for themselves Hanoi’s falsehoods.”

(Civil disobedience tactics the group has promoted include reducing productivity at work, writing appeals and petitions, and distributing news via the Internet or mobile phone.)

Viet Tan also challenged the government to publish Hoang’s writings in state newspapers, to enable people to judge for themselves “whether he’s a criminal or a patriot.”

According to the free-speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, Hoang’s online articles have focused on education, the environment and defense of Vietnam’s sovereignty in its relations with China. (The two countries are embroiled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.)

Reporters Without Borders says at least 19 journalists, bloggers and cyberactivists are being detained in Vietnam. It recently wrote to the country’s prime minister, urging him to include them in a group of prisoners to receive amnesty in honor of a national holiday on September 2, but to no avail.

People convicted under article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code – the article cited by Mung – may be sentenced to lengthy prison terms or even to death.

Earlier this year the International Federation for Human Rights, a coalition of more than 150 rights groups, urged Vietnam to declare a moratorium on the death penalty, calling capital punishment “particularly dangerous in a one-party state such as Vietnam, where the judiciary is totally subservient to the Communist Party.”

Official statistics are not available, but some 83 death sentences were handed down last year and nine executions carried out, according to media reports. 

Critics of the Hanoi government have long accused it of trying to have it both ways – reaping the benefits of significantly improved diplomatic, trade and military relations with the U.S. while restricting freedom of expression and religion and clamping down on peaceful opposition to the one-party state at home.

In late 2006, the U.S. awarded permanent normal trade relations to Vietnam, paving the way for it to join the World Trade Organization the following year.

The Bush administration also removed Vietnam from the list of “countries of particular concern” drawn up under the International Religious Freedom Act.

In doing so it cited improvements in the religious freedom area, but the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel set up under the IRFA, called the move premature and has been urging its reversal ever since.

This year, Vietnam chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), at a time when the Obama administration is seeking to strengthen ties with the 10-member grouping as a counterweight against China’s regional ambitions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Hanoi over the summer and will be returning next month, as will Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Last week, Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet joined other ASEAN leaders in a summit with Obama in New York. The Asians pledged to “strengthen cooperation with the United States in addressing issues related to human rights,” according to a statement released by the White House.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow