By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor
The first of nine expected trials took place on Tuesday, when Tran Duc Thach, a poet, was sentenced by a Hanoi court to three years’ imprisonment, followed by a further three years’ probation, for violating article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, which covers “propaganda against the socialist state.”
A U.S.-based representative of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group banned in Vietnam, said Thach, 57, is an advocate for freedom of expression for writers, democracy and human rights, and a critic of the one-party state.
On Wednesday, Vu Hung, a 43-year-old school teacher, appeared in Hanoi and was handed the same sentence, for hanging a 10-foot banner on a Hanoi bridge critical of government policies and calling for democracy.
He was one of a group of eight Vietnamese detained 13 months ago and all accused of violating article 88. The other seven are due to go on trial on Thursday, one in Hanoi and six in the northern port city of Hai Phong.
According to Viet Tan, Reporters Without Borders and other groups monitoring the situation, those arrested were accused of offenses including posting articles online criticizing state policies.
In some cases, the offending material related not to domestic policies, but to a longstanding territorial dispute with China over two groups of islands in the South China Sea, the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Many Vietnamese believe the communist government is not pushing its sovereignty claims over the islands energetically, for fear of offending Beijing
Vu Hung’s banner included references to the loss of the territory. Viet Tan said that by jailing him, “Hanoi has effectively criminalized free speech and patriotism.”
The trials had initially been scheduled to begin on September 24 but they were postponed without explanation.
Viet Tan believes the delay was an attempt to avoid controversy as Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet was in New York City at the time for the U.N. General Assembly session, which he addressed on September 25.
Relatives of some of those on trial this week had written earlier to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and world leaders attending the General Assembly, urging them to take up the matter with Triet.
Sympathetic U.S. lawmakers also urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with her Vietnamese counterpart Pham Gia Khiem last Thursday, to confront him on the human rights situation, including the dissidents’ imprisonment.
“I find it appalling that a country which blatantly acts in disregard to the U.N. Declaration will be acting as president of the U.N. Security Council in October,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to Clinton.
“I request that you strongly urge the Government of Vietnam to meet its obligations to the U.N. and its people by upholding the basic principles of the U.N. – respect for human rights,” said Sanchez, whose constituency has a large Vietnamese-American community.
In brief comments to reporters after the meeting with Khiem, Clinton said that “human rights, especially freedom of expression” was one of many issues discussed.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem speak after talks in Washington on October 1, 2009 (State Department photo by Michael Gross)
The clampdown on free speech since late last year followed a period of relative relaxation as Vietnam sought, and won, permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with the U.S. in late 2006 and World Trade Organization membership in early 2007.
In the run-up to the PNTR decision, Vietnamese activists took advantage of the relative openness by issuing a manifesto calling for multi-party democracy. The signatories called themselves Bloc 8406, after the date of the launch.
During that period, Vietnam also engaged with the U.S. on religious freedom issues and the State Department, citing “significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom,” removed Hanoi from a list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for egregious religious freedom abuses.
Vietnam topped the string of accomplishments with a two-year stint on the Security Council beginning January 2008. One of 10 non-permanent members, this month it holds the council’s rotating presidency for the second time.
Once it had secured PNTR status and WTO accession, the regime began to tighten control again, targeting bloggers and dissidents linked to Bloc 8406.
U.S. critics say Vietnam’s rights record quickly deteriorated despite the significantly improved relations with Washington. Over the summer, members of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus said they had identified at least 100 Vietnamese imprisoned for “peaceful expression of political or religious views.”
A new version of the Vietnam Human Rights Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last April by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) with a bipartisan group of cosponsors, would prohibit the U.S. from increasing non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam unless the government upholds civil and political liberties. A parallel bill was introduced in the Senate in May by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Previous versions of the legislation have passed by large margins in the House, but were blocked in the Senate, where opposition was led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), both Vietnam War veterans, who were instrumental in the normalization of diplomatic relations 14 years ago.
Next year, the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations, will also see Vietnam chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and host an ASEAN summit in October. Triet has invited Obama to visit.
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