An appeals court in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City on Friday upheld harsh prison terms handed down last year to four activists convicted of planning protests on Vietnam’s National Day on Sept. 2, 2018.
Arrested in September 2018, the four were part of a group of eight named by police as members of the Hien Phap (Constitution) Group, a network of activists formed on June 16, 2017 to call for the rights to freedom of speech and assembly promised under Article 25 of Vietnam’s Constitution.
All eight were convicted of “disturbing security” under Article 118 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code, and were sentenced on July 31, 2020 to prison terms ranging from two years and six months to eight years in a trial from which family members were barred.
In a one-day hearing on Friday, judges upheld the sentences given by the lower court to Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh, sentenced to eight years in prison; Ngo Van Dung and Le Quy Loc, sentenced to five years in prison each; and Ho Dinh Cuong, sentenced to four years and six months.
All four were then returned to prison to serve their full terms, including two to three years on probation following their release.
“The four members of the Constitution Group again declared their innocence in court today, saying they had only engaged in protests according to their rights,” defense attorney Nguyen Van Mieng told RFA by phone following the trial.
They said their group had called for protests only to oppose a new law granting concessions of land in Vietnam to Chinese businesses, “and not to disrupt social order and security or act against the interests of the state,” Mieng said.
The court rejected the group’s arguments, though, saying that their goal had been to disturb social order and security, leaving them open to conviction under Article 118 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Family members watch via TV
Huynh Thi Kim Nga, the wife of defendant Ngo Van Dung, told RFA on Friday that she and other family members had been allowed to watch the day’s court proceedings via television monitor in a separate room.
“Things were made easier for us than they had been at the last trial, and we later learned that the reason for this was that the U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City was present in the court,” she said.
“My husband said in court this morning that whether he was finally sentenced to five, 10, or even 100 years in prison, he still affirmed his innocence of the charge of causing harm to the country, and that everything he did was permitted under Article 25 of Vietnam’s Constitution,” she said.
The Hien Phap Group had previously played a major role in calling for widespread protests that rocked Vietnamese cities in June 2018 in opposition to a proposed cybersecurity law and the law granting concessions of land to Chinese businesses, and many of its members are now serving long terms in prison.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent deteriorated sharply last year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in January.
According to the rights group Defend the Defenders, Hanoi is currently detaining at least 238 prisoners of conscience.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.