(RFA) – A Vietnamese court on March 19 sentenced a dissident blogger to 15 months in jail in the second such conviction to be handed down this month as authorities clamp down on online criticism of government leaders and policies, sources said.
Pham Viet Dao, 62 and a former Vietnamese Communist Party member and government official, was sentenced in Hanoi under Article 258 of Vietnam’s criminal code on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the State.”
The sentence was immediately condemned by rights groups who saw the move as part of a relentless government drive to suppress online dissent in the one-party authoritarian state.
In a joint statement, the Paris-based rights groups International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights said Dao’s conviction “once again calls into question the Vietnamese government’s stated commitment to respecting human rights.”
“In fact, Vietnam continues to behave as an authoritarian government that perceives every freedom, including freedom of opinion and expression, as a threat to its rule,” the statement said.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly applied Article 258 to convict Internet commentators, including two others arrested along with Dao in mid-2013.
“The Vietnamese authorities are shaming themselves before domestic and international public opinion by staging yet another political trial of a peaceful critic,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement just before the court hearing.
“Pham Viet Dao’s only crime has been to use the Internet to voice opinions shared by many Vietnamese, outside and inside government.”
On March 4, popular blogger and rights campaigner Truong Duy Nhat, 50, one of the two arrested along with Dao, was handed a two-year term on the same charge, prompting outrage from rights groups and an expression of “deep concern” from the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, which called on Vietnam to release Nhat and “allow all Vietnamese to peacefully express their political views.”
Vietnam has jailed dozens of bloggers and rights advocates in recent years over their online posts, with rights groups accusing the government of using vague national security provisions against them to silence dissent.
In handing down Dao’s sentence, the presiding judge blasted the former party member and official for having “defamed the party and state … blackening the honor and prestige of the [Communist] Party leader and the prime minister,” press reports said.
Dao, who represented himself at his trial, apologized for having possibly “posted some incorrect information” in his blogs, but added that he did not believe his posts had “badly influenced society.”
Because Dao had declined the help of attorneys to speak for him, details of his testimony at trial and in the pre-trial investigation phase were not available to reporters, according to Vietnam’s popular Basam blog.
Security at the trial was tight, another blogger reported afterward, writing anonymously.
“When I got there, I saw a lot of policemen and security forces around the court,” he said, adding, “One security man from the Hoan Kiem district told me to go away. They did not let me take a picture, either.”
‘Gesture’ to China?
Dao, a former inspector in charge of corruption issues at Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, may have especially angered authorities with his writings focusing on Vietnam’s ongoing territorial disputes with China, FIDH noted in its statement Wednesday.
“Analysts deemed his [June 13, 2013] arrest, which took place six days before Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang made an official visit to China, as a gesture of friendship to Beijing,” the rights group said.
Vietnam came under criticism in February for the harassment and jailing of bloggers and government critics during a U.N. review of its rights record in Geneva, with Western countries calling on the one-party Communist state to respect freedom of expression.
Diplomats gathered for Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review—a process each U.N. member country undergoes every four years—also condemned Vietnam’s expanded use of the death penalty and for blocking activists from traveling to Geneva for the review.
U.S. representative Peter Mulrean called on Vietnam to “release all political prisoners” during the review before the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which Vietnam joined last year.
“Vietnam still harasses and detains those who exercise universal rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and association,” he said, according to international news agencies.
This year’s UPR came two days after Vietnam’s former consul in Geneva, Dang Xuong Hung, announced he had sought political asylum in Switzerland, calling in an open letter for the Vietnamese delegation to admit to the country’s violations.