Harsh sentence sends chilling signal

Supporters of the bloggers gathered outside the court before they were dispersed by police.

Supporters of the bloggers gathered outside the court before they were dispersed by police. Photo courtesy AFP.

The harsh prison sentence imposed on the blogger, Ba Sam, has sent a chilling message to other bloggers and government critics across Vietnam.

The sentence of 5 years was close to the maximum that can be imposed under article 258 of the penal code under which he was tried with his assistant, Nguyen Minh Thi Thuy. She received a 3 year term.

Observers said the judge gave virtually no consideration to the arguments of the defence lawyers and reached a guilty verdict despite clear problems with the case for the prosecution.

The United States embassy said that the use of criminal laws to stifle free speech was “disturbing.”

“We call on the government to release unconditionally these two individuals, as well as all other prisoners of conscience, and allow all Vietnamese to express their views peacefully, without fear of retribution,” said the embassy in a statement.

Tough line on dissent

Vietnam has foregone such high profile political cases for more than a year, suggesting that the government did not want to alienate Washington during negotiations, concluded late last year, for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The trial of Ba Sam and Thuy was delayed for nearly two years after their arrest, leading to speculation that the authorities were undecided about how to handle the case.

The harsh sentences, coming just two months before President Obama is due to visit Vietnam, appears to signal that the Communist party leadership, currently being reshuffled after a contentious party congress, will continue to take a tough line on dissent.

Amnesty International described the convictions as “a shameful abdication of the country’s human rights obligations.”

There was also condemnation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which said that Vietnam was violating its commitment to protect freedom of speech as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“If Vietnam wants to be viewed as a responsible member of the international community and a reliable partner in multilateral agreements, these bogus anti-state convictions must stop immediately,” said Shawn Crispin, the CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative.

Long wait for trial

Human Right Watch says the case could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech in a country where social media have transformed the public’s access to information and comment in recent years.

“The bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy have been detained for almost two years simply for criticizing the Vietnam Communist Party and its leadership, even though the government has ratified international human rights law that unequivocally protects their actions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Ba Sam, whose real name is Nguyen Huu Vinh, began his blog in 2007, providing links to news and analysis from a wide range of perspectives.

It attracted several million readers and seemed for a while to be immune from a government clampdown.

In May 2014, the two bloggers were arrested and their long wait for trial began.

The indictment cited 12 articles published on the sites, which it said had untruthful content and distorted the lines and policies of the party and the state.

Some of the articles addressed historical accusations of brutality and repression of free speech under the communist government.

“Vietnam’s friends and donors should publicly challenge the ludicrous charges against Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh,” Adams said. “They should demand that the government free all political prisoners and drop all pending charges against dissenting voices.”