Published April 5, 2018
Six Vietnamese activists were sentenced between seven to fifteen years in prison on charges of subversion after a one-day trial in Hà Nội. Their sentences total sixty-six years in prison and seventeen years of house arrest, the harshest sentences handed by the one-party state in years amid a crackdown on dissent.
Human rights lawyer Nguyễn Văn Đài, 48, received the longest sentence of 15 years in prison and 5 years of house arrest. His legal assistant Lê Thu Hà, who was arrested with him in December 2015, received nine years in prison. Lutheran pastor Nguyễn Trung Tôn and Trương Minh Đức both received 12 years. Nguyễn Bắc Truyển and Phạm Văn Trội received sentences of 11 and 7 years in prison, respectively. All besides Lê Thu Hà are bloggers and citizen journalists who have been jailed before.
According to attorney Luân Lê, who represented some of the defendants, Nguyễn Văn Đài said inside the heavily secured courtroom,“leniency for political dissidents today is really an act of leniency for yourself in the future.”
Trương Minh Đức shared similar sentiments, saying, “I have no regrets. Today you put me on trial but tomorrow it may be you on trial.”
A Tightening Grip on Dissent
Commenting on the trial, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Lê Thị Thu Hằng said, “In Việt Nam there is no such thing as a ‘prisoner of conscience’, and there’s no such thing as people being arrested for ‘freely expressing opinion’.”
People were quick to react on Twitter.
All six are members of the Brotherhood for Democracy (BFD), an organization that promotes civic engagement and provides training in human rights. The group began in 2013, with Nguyễn Văn Đài as one of the founding members.
The latest research from Amnesty International shows there are currently close to 100 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. In 2017 alone, more than 40 activists have been arrested, issued warrants or exiled in an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression.
The European Union condemned the convictions, saying it “continues the negative trend of prosecuting and sentencing human rights activists and bloggers” in Việt Nam, an EU spokesperson for the European External Action Service (EEAS) has said.
Nguyễn Trung Trọng Nghĩa, Nguyễn Trung Tôn’s son, tells Loa that he and his family are heartbroken with the sentence. Nghĩa, also known as Effy, had been traveling the world to advocate for his father and other members of the BFD.
“It’s really horrible because my grandmother is already 90 years old. I don't think she’s going to last the next 12 years,” he said. “I don't think my father will get the chance to see her again. [We are] a family who has a member dedicating their lives to society and this is what we get from the government.”
Local and Global Support
Before the trial, supporters marched for about two kilometers in solidarity with the six activists from Thái Hà Church to the courthouse in Hà Nội. A Facebook live video showed marchers were followed and eventually broken up by security and plainclothes police. According to AFP, at least two were taken into unmarked vans by security police, and several others were taken into busses.
In the days leading up to the trial, hundreds of people from around the world showed support for the six activists by sharing photos with signs reading “Democracy is not a crime” along with the hashtag #HAEDC, which stands for the Brotherhood for Democracy.
International rights organizations and family members have raised these activists’ cases for nearly two years even garnering the attention of a United Nations body. Family members of the activists met with seven embassies before the trial, to plead for support and intervention.
As the trial closed, Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, despite facing more than a decade behind bars, stated: “I will continue the struggle and if I must sit in jail, others on the outside will fight on for me and they will never stop.”