Vietnamese court sentences democracy activist to 4 years as crackdown on dissent continues

By Ben Stocking, AP
Friday, January 29, 2010

Vietnam sentences democracy activist to 4 years

HANOI, Vietnam — An author and democracy activist who criticized Vietnam’s communist government was sentenced Friday to four years in prison on charges of spreading propaganda against the state, her lawyer said.

Pham Thanh Nghien, 32, was also given three years’ probation after a half-day trial in the northern port city of Haiphong, attorney Tran Vu Hai said.

The trial was closed to Western media and diplomats, who are ordinarily allowed to watch such proceedings on closed-circuit TV at the courthouse.

Nghien is the 15th Vietnamese democracy activist to face charges in the last three months. All the others were quickly tried, convicted and jailed.

Last year, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch gave Nghien an award for writers who have been targets of political persecution. It praised articles she wrote promoting human rights, democracy and better treatment of landless peasants.

Nghien, an independent journalist, was arrested at her home in September 2008 and originally accused of staging a protest against the Vietnamese government’s policies toward China, its massive northern neighbor.

She displayed two banners urging the government to take a tougher stance against China in territorial disputes over the Spratlys and Paracels, two island chains in the South China Sea. She was also accused of posting photographs of her protest online.

But on Friday, prosecutors withdrew those charges and her conviction was based on a separate incident, her lawyer said.

Prosecutors argued that she had defamed officials by writing an article in which she alleged they had stolen money intended for relatives of fishermen who had been killed by Chinese patrols in a 2007 incident, Hai said.

Nghien was also charged with possessing anti-government documents written by other dissidents and giving interviews to Western media.

In her testimony, Nghien acknowledged she committed those acts but maintained that they were not illegal, Hai said.

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