Tuesday was a bad day for democracy in Vietnam, as two prominent activists lost appeals against their jail sentences.
The provincial People’s Court in the Central Highland province of Dak Lak, rejected the appeal of Y Wo Nie while the Higher People’s Court in Hanoi dismissed the appeal of Le Van Dung.
Nie is a Protestant from the Ede ethnic minority. He was sentenced to four years by Cu Kuin district court on May 20 this year. He was charged with “abusing democratic freedom,” for reporting religious persecution in his region to international groups.
His conviction was based on an indictment claiming he took pictures of three handwritten human rights reports and sent them to several international organizations and also met with representatives of the US diplomatic mission in Vietnam.
Lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng told RFA his client had changed his appeal to protest his innocence.
“He changed his appeal from asking for reduced imprisonment to total freedom, saying that he was not guilty and did not violate Article 331 of the Criminal Code,” Mieng said.
The trial took place without a judicial expert, witnesses or relatives. Only the defendant, lawyer and an Ede-Vietnamese interpreter.”
The lawyer said Nie's wife and relatives were not allowed to enter the courtroom, so they, and more than 100 other Ede people, stood in the courtyard.
Mieng asked the appeals court to summon two examiners from the Department of Information and Communications of Dak Lak province and a diplomat from the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City but his request was denied by the court.
The appeals panel did not mention a point in the original indictment saying that Nie met representatives of the U.S. Embassy and Consulate General in Gia Lai province’s Pleiku city in June 2020.
Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, a former prisoner of conscience from Ho Chi Minh City, said the sentence was predetermined.
"When the accused complains, the court should consider letting the lawyer present the reasons for the complaint. The independence of the court must be based on the argument in court between the lawyer and the prosecutor and it is very unfortunate that the evidence was not applied in this hearing and the final court judgment,” Quang said.
“Vietnam’s justice system has not been effective in reforming and is still targeting dissidents. Those with different ways of thinking will be severely punished, especially regarding … the behavior of public authorities towards the Protestant community in the Central Highlands.”
Mieng also said the assessment of the Department of Information and Communications did not follow regulations and resembled the statement by the State Department spokesman, coming to the same conclusions as the original indictment.
The indictment of the People's Procuratorate of Dak Lak province states that Nie personally wrote three human rights reports, took pictures and sent them via WhatsApp to "reactionary subjects abroad."
Mieng said the documents included a copy of “The Violation of Religious Freedom” and the content of the report was sent to the UN Commission on Human Rights and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The other two reports were on “The Situation of Religion and Human Rights of the Ede ethnic people in the Central Highlands,” and on “The Situation of Religious Freedom in General and in Particular for the Ethnic People in the Central Highlands."
Nie was arrested in September 2021 for activities judged to "affect the political security situation, social order and safety and the normal operation of State administrative agencies, reduce the public's confidence in the regime and affect the image of the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as well as the prestige of the Communist Party of Vietnam in international diplomatic relations.”
This is Nie's second time in prison. He was sentenced to nine years for “undermining the unity policy,” a provision often used to imprison religious activists among many Montagnard ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands.
A recent report on religious freedom from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also criticized the Vietnamese government's crackdown on the mountain dwelling religious groups of the Central Highlands.
According to Vietnamese NGO Defend the Defenders, there are currently more than 60 religious freedom activists imprisoned with long sentences under the charge of "undermining the unity policy." Most of them are Protestants from many ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.
Le Van Dung’s appeal lasts for less that two hours
Also on Tuesday the Higher People’s Court in Hanoi carried out the appeal hearing of 52-year-old Le Van Dung. He was arrested in June last year and in March this year he was convicted of “conducting anti-state propaganda” and sentenced to five years in prison and five years of probation.
Dung’s appeal only lasted one hour and 45 minutes before the court upheld his sentence.
Lawyer Dang Dinh Manh, who defended Dung at his appeal, said the hearing was too shallow.
“The court asked questions very briefly, did not go into depth or give time for debate. The court also cut off the arguments of the lawyer,” Manh said.
“Having previously worked with us we know that Dung did not expect the appeal hearing would change the outcome. So when he went to court his attitude was very relaxed, very calm and he was almost smiling throughout the hearing.”
According to the lawyer, the Procurator had an attitude of not wanting to argue and only answered lawyers’ questions vaguely.
“The lawyers actually raised a lot of issues,” Manh said. “I raised four issues, but he only argued with me over one issue with only one very short sentence.”
“For example, when we argued about the issue of judicial expertise, the Procurator said that the assessors are granted the assessor’s license by the state, so they have the right and full authority over the matter of expertise and [they consider] their expertise as such is lawful. They didn’t argue against many issues we raised.”
In cases of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code or under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code, the defendants’ statements on social networks are usually assessed by state agencies.
The purpose of the examination is to find content that is alleged to violate the above laws.
Also according to Dung's defense, the lawyers could not argue further with the Procuracy because the presiding judge interrupted, saying "there is no further consensus on anything."
Manh said Dung still insisted he did not break the law, but only exercised his right to freedom of expression as prescribed by the Constitution.
“No one is surprised with the result of the hearing,” Manh said. “We all understand the way the Vietnamese court works, so we don't expect a big change, not even a small change. In general, we disagree with the accusations against Dung in both hearings."
The lawyer said Dung should not have been arrested and prosecuted just for voicing his opinions since the right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution. He said the Vietnamese government also has a responsibility to respect this right, having signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The hearings drew criticism from international human rights organizations.
Human Rights Watch called for the court to release Le Van Dung, and accused the Vietnamese government of suppressing human rights.
“The politically motivated, totally bogus conviction of Le Van Dung should be quashed and he should be immediately released, “said Asia Regional Vice President Phil Robertson.
“Using the Internet to speak out about injustice and demand reforms should not be considered a crime. By prosecuting him, Vietnam shows what a dictatorial, rights-abusing state it has become. Le Van Dung’s five-year prison verdict in March exemplifies the way officials retaliate against outspoken citizens for simply speaking their minds.”
Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director Ming Yu Hah also criticized the appeal.
“This appeal hearing once again shows the failure of the Vietnamese government to fulfill its human rights obligations,” she said.
“Le Van Dung is an independent journalist and has fought for the freedom of expression of disadvantaged groups in society, as well as for social transparency. His efforts should be applauded, not jailed for speaking his mind.”
“The Vietnamese government should immediately release Le Van Dung and many other human rights activists, such as Pham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu, and Nguyen Thi Tam."
“Dung is known for his live broadcasts on Facebook under the name CHTV, through which this journalist specializes in helping farmers whose land has been expropriated to ‘claim their grievances’ and at the same time provide comments on the socio-political situation in Vietnam.”
Two other prominent activists hear the results of their appeals on Wednesday. Trinh Ba Phuong, 37, and Nguyen Thi Tam, 50, were both arrested on June 24, 2020 and charged with "conducting anti-state propaganda.”
In December the Hanoi People's Court sentenced Phuong to 10 years in prison and five years’ probation. Tam was sentenced to six years in prison and three years’ probation.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Vietnamese.