A crushing sentence of 15 years in prison for a leading pro-democracy advocate cements Vietnam’s growing reputation as Southeast Asia’s most repressive country.
Nguyen Van Dai, a debarred human rights lawyer and campaigner for political freedoms, was sentenced alongside five fellow activists, who received terms of between 7 and 12 years.
The length of the sentences, the cursory nature of the trial, which was abruptly cut from two days to one, and the sweeping nature of the charges, all testify to Vietnam’s contempt for foreign criticism of its human rights record.
Dai and his fellow detainees were accused of working to overthrow the government, the most severe charge employed by the state security apparatus to crush dissent.
Dai’s work to defend human rights, offer support to marginalised Christian communities, and provide training for would-be civil society activists, was seen as an intolerable challenge by a one-party state that sees all criticism as subversion.
His assistant, Le Thu Ha, who was arrested at the same time in December 2015, was sentenced to 9 years in prison and 2 years of house arrest .
Both have been held, almost entirely cut off from outside contact, for the last 27 months, while the government pondered how to proceed with the case.
Wave of repression
The other four accused were arrested in a series of raids last year.
Truong Minh Duc was sentenced to 12 years in prison and 3 years of house arrest.
Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton was sentenced to 12 years in prison and 3 years of house arrest, while Nguyen Bac Truyen was sentenced to 11 years in prison and 3 years of house arrest.
Pham Van Troi was sentenced to seven years in prison and one year of probation.
The charge against Dai was increased from propaganda against the state to plotting to overthrow the government after the later arrests, as the government’s latest wave of repression gathered momentum.
The lack of any attempt to make the trial appear like a credible legal process conforms to a recent pattern; a series of bloggers and other government critics have received lengthy jail terms after just the briefest of court appearances.
Denying the defendants sufficient access to their lawyers during their prolonged periods of pre-trial detention also shows the government’s lack of interest in providing a fair trial.
For years, Vietnam has managed to present itself to the outside world as an authoritarian state that tempers its treatment of dissidents with a degree of moderation.
Vietnamese leaders have tried to create the impression that they can take a more sophisticated and lenient approach to dissent than their fellow communists in China.
The latest wave of sentences shows the Vietnamese leadership in its true colours following the consolidation of Communist party ideologues around Nguyen Phu Trong in January 2016. Even Chinese courts could be expected to baulk at 15 years imprisonment for peacefully advocating a more pluralistic political system.