From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
On Friday 11 May, the Hanoi People's Court sentenced Christian religious liberty advocate and human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai (38) to five years imprisonment to be followed by four years of house arrest. Dai's colleague, lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan (28), was sentenced to four years imprisonment to be followed by three years of house arrest.
Both lawyers were arrested on 6 March and charged with propagandising against the state of Vietnam. According to official Vietnamese media, the court found Dai and Nhan guilty of using Dai's Thien An law office since 2006 for the purpose of spreading libellous propaganda against the state of Vietnam in violation of Article 88 of the Criminal Code. (Link 1, includes photos)
Ben Stocking (in Hanoi for Associated Press) reports that Dai denied he had broken any laws, saying he had merely exercised his right to free expression and association.
Indeed, Chapter Five, Article 69 of the Constitution of Vietnam states: "The citizen shall enjoy freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, the right to be informed, and the right to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations in accordance with the provisions of the law." (See Link 2 for the Constitution of Vietnam.)
As this trial demonstrates however, the law, specifically Article 88 of the Criminal Code which makes it illegal to 'conduct propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam', can be wielded to severely restrict these Constitutional rights, rendering them illusory.
According to Stocking, when the trial was over Western diplomats decried the outcome.
As Stocking notes: "Before their March 6 arrests, Dai and Nhan provided human rights training to Vietnamese students. Dai also represented ethnic minorities who were members of Protestant faiths." (Link 3)
The Vietnamese regime has done a thorough job of demonising religious liberty advocate and human rights lawyer Nguyen van Dai. The day before Lawyer Dai's trial, a press release was issued from "Le Quoc Minh, deputy chief of Vietnam News Agency's News for Foreign Service Department", that condemned Dai as an extremist, a radical, and an associate of terrorists, whose "slanderous and libellous information" [that Vietnam is violating its religious liberty obligations] threatened Vietnam's socio-economic progress and development. Further to that, the day after the trial the authorities published condemnations of Dai procured from local Vietnamese Christian leaders.
PRE-TRIAL OFFICIAL CONDEMNATION
A 10 May press release from the deputy chief of Vietnam News Agency's News for Foreign Service Department, Le Quoc Minh, opens with the words: "Foreign investors have been flocking to Viet Nam en masse armed with big ideas on how to tap into Southeast Asia's fastest growing economy." He comments that it is Vietnam's "social and political stability that allows investments to mature in a low risk environment", and adds that it is Vietnam's domestic unity has enabled it to overcome its great challenges. (Link 4)
Upon this foundation Le Quoc Minh then decries: "Viet Nam, although by and large a peaceful country, has fallen victim to a group of radicals that seem driven to fracture the unity we commonly share and revive painful divisions long since healed. [This doubtless refers to Vietnam and US relations.]
"This group has allegedly conspired with criminals and even terrorist organisations responsible for kidnappings, bombings and assassinations to undo much of the progress the country has made in building a strong, secure and democratic society.
"Apart from notorious opponents of the government, there recently emerged Nguyen Van Dai, Tran Khai Thanh Thuy and Le Thi Cong Nhan, all of whom have allegedly shown themselves to be the loudest of extreme elements in the nation."
>From here Le Quoc Minh launches into a lengthy attack on the integrity and work of lawyer Nguyen van Dai. He says, "[Dai is] alleged to have abused the right to freedom of speech by posting information on the internet and giving interviews to overseas Vietnamese-owned radio stations where he painted a biased and distorted picture of the country and its internal affairs."
The press release details Dai's advocacy work and adds: "Authorities said Dai also had an ongoing relationship with an outlawed terrorist group, the Viet Nam Reform Party [see link 5]. They said he was found to be active in establishing training courses using his Thien An Law Office in Ha Noi as a base."
After commenting that Dai is alleged to have receive funds from "reactionary organisations in the US", the press release goes on to allege that "the money, in large part, was used to fund a scam where the 'Viet Nam Committee for Human Rights' group offered law school students scholarships to study in Bangkok, Thailand. There, they attended 'education' workshops run by anti-Government elements operating inside the country."
Le Quoc Minh also claims: "Dai had instructed staff from his Thien An law office to travel to northwestern, Central Highlands and southern provinces to contact Protestant clergymen and their followers who have shown hatred towards the Government, according to the source.
"Together they compiled 'evidence of Viet Nam's suppression of the Protestant religion' and gave it to the US-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Viet Nam and to the US Embassy in Viet Nam. Officials said their findings were doctored, distorted or fabricated to further the aims of Dai and his organisation."
The pre-trial press release, issued specifically with regards to the 11 May trial of Dai and his colleagues Thuy and Nhan, ends with words of assurance, words that demonstrate the trial was actually over before it began: ". . .the law will not allow a tiny minority to harm the interests of what the vast majority believe in as a nation and as a people." (Link 4)
POST-TRIAL CHURCH CONDEMNATION
On the day after the trial, the government-run Vietnam News Agency was doubtless delighted to report that various Christian leaders were prepared to condemn religious liberty advocate and human rights lawyer Nguyen van Dai.
"Priest Thien Cam from the Mai Khoi parish in Ho Chi Minh City called the acts by Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan 'absurd acts of fake intellectuals.' He affirmed that it is not difficult for local people to recognise the true nature of the case, adding that persons like Dai and Nhan will never have a place in the community because their acts run counter to the community's interest. This will be an even 'heavier sentence' imposed on them, he said.
"Priest Tran Tha, head of the Board for Catholic Solidarity in Di Linh district, Central Highlands Lam Dong province, stressed that all citizens must abide by the law. 'Therefore, it is unacceptable to violate the law and regulations of the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam inciting rebellion and violent change,' he said.
"According to Father Tha, all parishioners in the Di Linh parish closely followed the trial and supported the strict punishment for law violation.
"A large number of people in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai also strongly protested against the wrong action of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan.
"K'Leng, a Protestant follower in Yun commune in Mang Yang district, said anybody who violates the law must be tried strictly regardless of his or her religion or race. (VNA)" (Link 6)
Of course it is possible that the clergymen quoted above were approached for their opinion, and that had they failed to condemn Dai upon request they would have been detained and interrogated, stripped of 'privileges', put under surveillance and persecuted.
It must also be noted though, that hostile totalitarian regimes usually have compliant clergy at their disposal, clergy they can rely on to deliver the required pro-government propaganda in exchange for privileges such as non-interference, protection and promotion.
(Thayer writes that while the Viet Tan (Viet Nam Reform Party) was involved in armed actions through the 1980s, this era ended with the death of its leader Hoang Co Minh in 1987. The group subsequently renounced violence and now works through peaceful and political means with the goal of helping the Vietnamese people break free from Communist dictatorship, so that democracy and liberty might come to Vietnam.)
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