Vietnam puts 4 democracy activists on trial for subversion

By Ben Stocking, AP
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Vietnam puts 4 democracy activists on trial

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — A human rights lawyer facing a possible death sentence testified Wednesday that he broke Vietnam’s subversion law, saying he had been influenced by Western ideas about democracy and freedom while studying in the United States.

Le Cong Dinh, one of the country’s best-known lawyers, is among four activists accused of working with Vietnamese exiles to promote a multiparty democracy in Vietnam, which the ruling Communist Party considers treason.

Three of the four defendants in the trial, which began Wednesday morning, could be sentenced to death by firing squad. The fourth, who is being tried as an accomplice, could face 15 years imprisonment.

The trial comes as factions jockey for power in advance of next year’s Communist Party congress, and some observers have speculated that the current crackdown on dissent is connected to the upcoming political transition. Vietnam has convicted 10 other democracy activists in the last three months.

None of them is better known than Dinh. In addition to handling high-profile human rights cases, he once represented Vietnamese fish farmers fighting an unfair trade complaint brought by U.S. catfish growers. During closing arguments at a 2007 human rights trial in Hanoi, Dinh made a highly unusual public plea for freedom of expression.

Prosecutors said the defendants on trial Wednesday had committed “an extremely serious” national security crime by joining the outlawed Democratic Party of Vietnam and collaborating with overseas Vietnamese groups dedicated to ousting the communists. They were prosecuted under Article 79 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which prohibits “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

As the proceedings began, two of the defendants denied wrongdoing, but two others, including Dinh, said they had broken the law.

“My actions were in violation of Article 79, specifically, participating in the Democratic Party of Vietnam, whose purpose was to call for a multiparty system, political pluralism and a new state,” said Dinh, 41. It was unclear why Dinh acknowledged wrongdoing, but he may have been hoping for a more lenient sentence.

Dinh, the former vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association, studied law at Tulane University in Louisiana on a Fulbright scholarship.

“During my studies overseas, I was influenced by Western attitudes toward democracy, freedom and human rights,” Dinh testified.

He acknowledged receiving a draft of a proposed new Vietnamese constitution and attending a three-day seminar on nonviolent political change in Thailand.

The seminar was organized by Viet Tan, an international pro-democracy network with members inside and outside Vietnam. The government considers Viet Tan a terrorist organization, but U.S. officials say there is no evidence to support that view.

On the eve of Wednesday’s trial, Viet Tan issued a statement condemning the “arbitrary charges” against the defendants, saying they were simply exercising their right to promote nonviolent change.

Also testifying Wednesday was Nguyen Tien Trung, who formed a student group called Viet Youth for Democracy in 2006 while studying information technology in France. During his visits to the West, he once met former U.S. President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In his testimony, Trung said he regretted joining the Democratic Party of Vietnam and forming the youth group.

“My actions violated Vietnamese law,” said Trung, 26. “I was immature and made a mistake. I deeply regret it.”

The other two defendants, both Internet entrepreneurs, denied wrongdoing and said they had only signed confessions under duress.

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, acknowledged organizing something called the Chan Study Group, which prosecutors say was committed to undermining the government. But Thuc said the group was simply formed to do research and make policy suggestions to Vietnamese leaders.

Le Thang Long, 42, acknowledged joining the study group, but said it was lawful.

“I’m innocent,” Long said, testifying that he had been subjected to “psychological terrorism” by the security police.

It is virtually unheard of for political defendants to be acquitted in Vietnam. The main issue to be determined at trial involves the length of the sentence.

Foreign reporters and diplomats watched the trial in a separate room at the court on a closed-circuit television that was sometimes inaudible. They were prohibited from bringing cameras or recording devices.

New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the proceedings, which are scheduled to end Thursday.

“Vietnam’s hostility toward freedom of expression and peaceful dissent is becoming increasingly flagrant in the run-up to next year’s party congress,” said Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director. “Vietnam should stop criminalizing and imprisoning government critics.”

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