Ba Sam gets 5 years in prison for “lowering state’s prestige”

A court in Hanoi has sentenced the prominent blogger, Ba Sam, to five years in prison in a case that was immediately condemned as unjust and illogical.

The sentence came after a one day trial in which Ba Sam, whose real name is Nguyen Huu Vinh, and his assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, were convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the State’s interests” under  Article 258 of the Vietnamese Penal Code.

Thuy received a jail term of three years.

Photo courtesy of the VNN.

On trial after 22 months in detention. Photo courtesy of the VNN.

Hundreds of supporters of the bloggers gathered outside the court and waved banners calling for their release. They were later dispersed by police.

At least five Western embassies had sent written requests to the Hanoi People’s Court asking to observe the trial, but none of them received a response from the authorities. Some diplomats went to the court but were kept outside, joining the hundreds of supporters, including bloggers and  landless farmers.

A German MP, Martin Patzelt, a member of the Committee of Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid in the Bundestag, also joined them. He said before his flight to Hanoi on Sunday that he would go to the court even if that meant he would be kept outside.

The courtroom, however, was filled with dozens of plainclothes police and students from the Academy of Public Security. It is believed that the police deployed students to fill the seats so they could refuse access to supporters and family members of the accused.

Young activists gathered outside the court, many holding the cover of a clandestinely published book about on Ba Sam.

Young activists gathered outside the court, many holding the cover of a clandestinely published book about on Ba Sam.

Vinh and Thuy have been held since their arrest in May 2014 in a case that is seen as a litmus test of the authorities’ approach to dissent.

At least two prominent activists, who have expressed support for the defendants, were detained and held for questioning.

A blogger was arrested before she left home to appear in court as a witness. She was the co-author of one of the 24 articles used by the police as evidence of guilt against Vinh and Thuy, which were accused of “lowering the state’s prestige.”

“The defendants’ acts were dangerous for society… and they were not honest and did not admit their crimes,” said the judge before passing sentence.

Prosecutors said that Ba Sam’s blog had misrepresented the Communist party’s line and lowered public trust in the leadership.

Vinh insisted upon his innocence in a statement to the court. One of his lawyers described the conviction as unjust and illogical. He had called on the court to dismiss the charges for lack of evidence.

Another lawyer, Tran Quoc Thuan, a former member of the National Assembly, complained that most of the defence arguments were ignored. “The judges were unresponsive and they have incredibly poor knowledge of IT,” he said.

The Ba Sam blog had attracted millions of readers before the arrests in 2014. It continued online afterwards in a more limited format with a a much smaller leadership.

It had carried articles from a number of authors that were openly critical of the government.

Vinh is from a prominent Communist family and was himself a police officer before taking up the campaign for freedom of expression in Vietnam.

Human rights activists condemned the sentence as a travesty of justice.

It is the first major political trial for more than a year. The delay had led to hope that Vietnam was bowing to international pressure and foregoing heavy prison sentences for government critics.