HANOI— A court in Vietnam has convicted a former journalist of violating a controversial new law that provides criminal penalties for "abusing freedoms to infringe upon the state's interests." Activists describe the judgement as an ongoing crackdown on freedom of speech in the country.
Fifty-year-old Truong Duy Nhat was charged with posting articles that “distorted the prestige of the Communist Party.” He was sentenced to two years in prison following a half-day trial at a court in his native Da Nang city on Tuesday.
Nhat wrote the popular blog Mot góc nhìn khác - Another point of view - which he founded in 2011 after giving up his job as a reporter for a state-run newspaper. He had worked as a journalist for local newspapers since 1987.
Posts on his blog often criticized Vietnam’s leadership and raised concerns about Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
His lawyer Tran Vu Hai said Nhat was convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” under Article 258 of the penal code.
Hai said he asked the prosecution to define what the interest of the state was in this case, arguing that under the constitution, there is no mention of the interests of the Communist Party.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said it was "deeply concerned" by the court's sentencing. In a written statement, it called on the Vietnamese government to release Truong Duy Nhat and all prisoners of conscience, and allow all Vietnamese to peacefully express their political views.
Nhat was arrested at his home last May shortly after a posting an article calling for the resignation of the prime minister and chief of the Communist Party.
A group of bloggers and journalists gathered outside the court in Da Nang to show their support. Among them was one blogger who writes under the name Mẹ Nam which means “Mother Mushroom” in Vietnamese.
She said many policemen surrounded the court and no one was allowed to enter except Nhat’s wife and children.
New York-based Human Rights Watch calls Article 258 a “vague provision” that has “routinely been used to imprison people for peaceful criticism of official policies and practices.”
Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council held a review of Vietnam’s human rights record, during which several U.N. member states called for the country to stop using Article 258 to prosecute people for expressing peaceful views.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson expressed doubt the Vietnamese government would heed those calls. "The Vietnamese government doesn’t want to give any ground on any of these sort of national security pieces of legislation because this is their catch-all for sending people that they don’t like into prison," he stated.
In November, Vietnam was voted in as a new member of the United Nations Human Rights Council - the U.N.’s highest monitoring body. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Algeria were also awarded seats.
Robertson said Nhat’s conviction shows Vietnam is not going to change its treatment of dissidents. "What you’re getting is a Vietnam government that’s bragging that it’s got the most votes for the Human Rights Council and taking that as a signal that they can go ahead and expand their abuse of human rights with impunity," he said.
According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam convicted and jailed 61 dissidents and activists in 2013, compared to about 40 a year earlier. The Vietnamese government says it only jails people who break the law, and that there are no political prisoners in the country.
Blogger Me Nam said the sentence was a warning for others who use blogs and Facebook not to speak out against the government.