BANGKOK — A court in Vietnam sentenced 14 activists to harsh prison terms of up to 13 years for attempting to overthrow the Communist party-led government. The trial was one of the largest for alleged subversion and a U.S.-based legal authority helping the accused tells says it was grossly unfair
In a trial lasting only two days, the court in central Vietnam Wednesday found the 14 activists guilty of subversion and sentenced them to between three and 13 years in prison. One activist received probation.
They were arrested in 2011 and charged with spreading anti-government propaganda and attempting to overthrow the government.
The group of bloggers and students were accused of being members of Viet Tan, a U.S.-based pro-democracy group that Hanoi labels a terrorist organization.
The defendants are mainly Catholics, an often-persecuted group under the ruling atheist Communist party and some were involved in anti-China demonstrations about disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Some also were among a group of 17 detained activists who in July appealed to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Allen Weiner is director of Stanford Law School's Program in International and Comparative Law. He helped file the petition to the United Nations and says Vietnam's legal procedures failed to give due process or anything close to a fair trial.
"These individuals were in prison for about a year before they were even notified of the charges against them, in clear violation of international standards and also in violation of Vietnam's own law," he says.
The trial opened Tuesday in northern Vietnam, but received little attention by the government-controlled media.
Authorities have allowed several rare public protests against China for recent aggressive moves on South China Sea territories that Vietnam disputes.
But rights groups say Hanoi fears the demonstrations, amid economic troubles and high-profile cases of official corruption, could turn against the state.
Weiner says Vietnam's rapid development has created demand for more democratic representation that the Communist party sees as a threat.
"I would have to say, if there was any single precipitating cause it has to be the kind of events that have happened in the Middle East or the protests that have happened in Russia," Weiner says. "We've seen similar kinds of redoubling of controls on social and political activity in China. I think we've seeing the same thing here in Vietnam."
Rights groups say Vietnam's crackdown on dissent is accelerating and starting to affect relations with Western nations. The United States cancelled an annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam last year for the apparent reversal of progress.
Weiner says although he hopes Vietnam will make a political calculation to end the crackdown, its behavior is demonstrating otherwise.
"I think it's very very important for countries in the region to make sure that Vietnam does not get the benefit of full engagement with the Western trading system, if it continues to behave in a manner that violates the international legal norms that Vietnam, itself, has accepted and that are so widely embraced around the world," he says.
Vietnam in September sentenced three bloggers to between four and 12 years in prison for spreading propaganda against the state. Their trial lasted just a few hours and was criticized by the United Nations human rights chief.
The U.S. State Department called those sentences deeply troubling.
Wednesday, he U.S. Embassy in Hanoi called for Vietnam to immediately release the activists and all prisoners of conscience.
In a statement, the embassy says treatment for the convicted was inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international and human rights laws.