The imposition of a ten-year prison sentence on one of Vietnam’s most acclaimed bloggers signals a growing mood of defiance in the Communist party leadership.
The harshness of the prison sentence announced on Thursday for Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who wrote under the name of Mother Mushroom, shocked observers at home and abroad.
It sends a message that Vietnam’s rulers are no longer concerned about possible repercussions from western governments that have urged improvements in human rights.
The representative in Hanoi for the European Union, Bruno Angelet, led a chorus of international condemnation.
“Yesterday’s sentencing….directly contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Vietnam is a party,” he said.
“The fact that her lawyer was allowed to meet her to prepare her defence only a few days ago calls into question the due process to which every Vietnamese is entitled under the law.”
The US State Department also said it was “troubled” by the trend in Vietnam for increased arrests and convictions of peaceful protesters since early 2016.
Human rights sidelined
The US had honoured Quynh earlier this year by naming her as an “International Woman of Courage”, an award she was unable to collect because she was under pre-trial detention.
However, President Trump’s clear lack of interest in promoting a human rights agenda in Asia, or anywhere else, appears to have reassured the Vietnamese authorities that they can crack down with impunity.
Vietnam had eased political repression in 2014 and 2015 while it negotiated the TPP trade agreement with Washington.
But President Obama increasingly sidelined human rights last year as he pursued closer trade and strategic ties with Hanoi.
President Trump’s move to scrap the TPP during his first days in office removed any final inhibitions.
A Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman brushed aside any criticism of the jail sentence, saying that it was “in accordance with Vietnamese law”.
State prosecutors had portrayed the blogger as a threat to state security who was intent on undermining national unity with her criticism of maladministration and police violence.
The increasing harshness of the crackdown on peaceful dissent, including a wave of violent attacks on activists, seems to suggest genuine fear in Hanoi at the growth of civil society movements.
Quynh had been harassed and temporarily detained on a number of occasions during her decade of blogging. But the decision to prosecute came only last October as she joined a nationwide movement to demand accountability over the Formosa chemical spill.
The Communist party has been spooked by the extent of public anger generated by the leak from the Taiwanese owned steel plant last April which devastated fish stocks off the north-central coast.
“The Vietnamese government uses vague national security laws to silence activists and throttle free speech,” said Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The Committee to Protest Journalists described the ten year sentence as an obscene injustice.
“The harsh measures Vietnam has taken against journalists like Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh should be an embarrassment to the country’s rulers,” said the CPJ’s Asia Director, Steven Butler.
But there is no sign of embarrassment in Hanoi.
The leadership appears to believe that it can crush dissent without serious repercussions at home or abroad.
Western governments may be losing the appetite to hold an increasingly important economic and strategic partner to account. However, the Vietnamese people have a keen sense of proportion and justice and have more access to independent media that ever before through the internet.
The sight of a courageous woman and committed campaigner, the mother of two young children, being crushed by state power is unlikely to reflect well on a ruling party that claims to uphold justice and sound government.