HANOI— Less than a week after a rights group accused Hanoi officials of increasing a systematic crackdown on government critics, a court in Vietnam’s Phu Yen province on Monday sentenced 22 people to prison for trying to overthrow the government.
All who faced the week-long trial were members of Hoi dong công án Bia Son, an illegal Buddhist organization that operates in central Vietnam. The group's name, which translates as Bia Son Council for Laws and Affairs, is taken from Bia Son mountain, a landmark in the province.
The 21 men and one woman were accused of plotting to set up a new state called Great Vietnam Kingdom, under which the group’s leader, Phan Van Thu, would be king. Thu was sentenced to life in prison and others received sentences between 10 and 17 years.
State-run media say the organization produced documents distorting policies of the communist party and the state. State sources say the group prepared a new national anthem, flag and capital city before the arrest of Thu and several others in February 2012.
"Because the group admitted Thu was to be king and other members were to be appointed ministers in the new state, their motives were very clear," said Nguyen Hong Que, one of six lawyers to defend the group. "The only thing the lawyers could do was ask the judge to reduce their sentences."
In its World Report 2013, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says at least 40 activists were given prison terms in Vietnam last year. The rights groups say that number indicates increased repression to keep rising dissent in check.
This year's tally is rising fast: 13 activists were sentenced to between three and 13 years in prison last month alone.
HRW Asia director Phil Robertson says the government is going after critics with a potentially large audience.
“So the Catholic church, the Redemptionists, you see going after a big group — the Phu Yen group who are claimed to be fomenting some kind of undesirable ideology," he said. "People who are transmission belts, who, through their blogs, speak to a much larger number of people.”
In a move that surprised some, the Vietnamese government last Wednesday deported U.S. citizen Nguyen Quoc Quan after nine months of detention. Quan was arrested entering Saigon airport and initially accused of acts of terrorism, but this was later changed to subversion charges.
A leading member of political group Viet Tan, which the government describes as a terrorist organization, Quan was jailed for six months in 2007 for handing out pro-democracy leaflets. His detention drew protests from U.S. diplomats, lawmakers and pro-democracy groups.
Speaking from his home in California, Quan said he traveled to Vietnam in April of last year to teach young people leadership skills, despite knowing there was a good chance he would be arrested. He took the risk, he said, because he knew detention would give him the opportunity to show solidarity with other rights activists.
"There are two reasons the Vietnamese government deported [me]," he said. "First, the government was afraid bringing [me] to trial would cause them problems and, second, because of pressure from the United States."
The fact he was released ahead of the others because of his U.S. passport shows the hypocrisy of the Vietnamese government, he said.