The United States and European Union called on Vietnam on Wednesday to immediately free three jailed Vietnamese journalists, one of them a blogger for RFA, sentenced this week to long jail terms for writing articles online criticizing Vietnam’s one-party communist government.
Nguyen Tuong Thuy, who had blogged for RFA for six years on civil rights and press-freedom issues, was convicted in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday with Pham Chi Dung and Le Huu Minh Tuan on charges of anti-state activity, and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Pham Chi Dung and Le Huu Minh Tuan—fellow members of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association and indicated with Thuy in November under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code—received sentences of 15 and 11 years respectively.
In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi slammed the conviction of the three journalists, calling the sentences handed down “the latest in a worrisome trend of arrests and convictions aimed at Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution.”
“Press freedom is fundamental to transparency and accountable governance,” the U.S. embassy said. “Authors, bloggers, and journalists often do their work at great risk, and we urge governments and citizens worldwide—including the government of Vietnam—to ensure their protection.”
The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution and by international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that Vietnam has signed and joined, the EU noted in a statement on Wednesday.
“States must protect freedom of expression and create a favourable environment for public debate even when the opinions expressed are contrary to those held by the authorities,” the EU said.
“The European Union expects the Vietnamese authorities to immediately release Mr. Dung, Mr. Thuy and Mr. Tuan, as well as journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders imprisoned for having peacefully expressed their views.”
Land rights, death penalty cases
Among the blog entries written by Thuy for RFA’s Vietnamese Service were criticisms of the government’s handling of the victims of land grabs and other protesters, and of a well-known death penalty case in Vietnam in which the defendant’s sentence was upheld on appeal on June 15.
Ho Duy Hai was arrested in March 2008 and convicted nine months later of murdering two postal employees in Long An province, for which the People’s Court in Long An sentenced him to death. His execution has not yet been carried out.
Observers have pointed to procedural errors in Ho’s case, noting that it was largely based on a confession that he later said had been coerced from him under pressure from police during his pre-trial detention.
Additionally, prosecutors in the case lacked crucial evidence, as no time of death for the two victims was ever established, fingerprints found at the crime scene did not match Ho’s, and the alleged murder weapons were later misplaced by the police department’s forensics team.
Thuy had involved himself in Ho’s case “out of compassion, because he believes that Ho is innocent,” Thuy’s wife Pham Thi Lan told RFA on Wednesday. “But although he has written about the case, in fact it is actually impossible for him to do anything.”
“Thuy always reminded us during family dinners to remember those in Vietnam who are wretchedly poor,” Pham said.
Pham said that Thuy also wrote extensively on the plight of victims of land grabs in Vietnam, where state authorities sometimes collude with business firms to seize village land, often leaving farmers without adequate compensation for lost homes, orchards, and fields.
“He would always go to see land-grab victims on the eve of Lunar New Year, and I would go with him because I was afraid that unlucky things might happen to him. I see his work as that of a conscientious person,” Pham said.
Thuy had also written on the April 30 anniversary of the 1975 fall of Saigon to communist forces to counter state-run media criticisms of Vietnamese who had fled the country at the end of the war, pointing to what he called the repressed condition of the country 45 years later.
‘Calm, friendly, active’
Also speaking to RFA, longtime friend Nguyen Huu Vinh called Thuy “calm, friendly, and active” in his work for progress and justice in Vietnam.
“The arrest and sentencing of people like Thuy is simply the government’s revenge against those who dare to fight for justice and tell the truth,” he said.
Thuy and the other sentenced journalists now join the estimated 170 prisoners of conscience currently held in Vietnam, Emerlynne Gill—deputy regional director for Amnesty International—said on Tuesday, adding that the court’s verdicts against the three underscore the Vietnamese government’s contempt for free media.
”Even by its own deeply repressive standards, the severity of the sentences show the depths being reached by Vietnam’s censors,” Gill said.
Two other RFA Vietnamese contributors are serving jail terms in Vietnam. They are Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger who was sentenced in March last year to 10 years, and Nguyen Van Hoa, a videographer who was sentenced in November 2017 to seven years.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent deteriorated sharply last year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in late January.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.