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Vietnam Sentences Dissident Lawyers to Prison

Two lawyers who ran a center for human rights law and supported alternative political parties in Vietnam were sentenced to prison Friday in Hanoi. Their trial came a day after three other democracy activists were convicted of similar charges in Ho Chi Minh City. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi that the convictions are the latest in a crackdown on democracy activists.

Lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan are members of the Vietnamese democracy and human rights group "Bloc 8406," and had organized seminars for students on international human rights law.

On Friday, a court in Hanoi sentenced Dai to five years in prison and Nhan to four years. Head judge Nguyen Huu Chinh pronounced them guilty under Article 88 of Vietnam's criminal code, for spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Chinh says that the seminars Dai opened in December 2006 spread propaganda against the state, and defamed former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

Dai and his lawyer denied the charges.

Dai says the seminars simply discussed the social and political situation of Vietnam.

Nhan complained that she was not allowed to defend herself properly.

Nhan says the court's procedure violated Vietnamese regulations, and that she was not allowed to speak during the part of the trial where the accused and their lawyers mount their defense.

Nhan was convicted in part for being the spokeswoman of the Vietnam Progression Party, which was founded last year. Vietnam's Communist Party is the only legal political party in the country.

The prosecution is part of a broad crackdown against Vietnam's small democracy movement, which gained strength through 2006. Since the beginning of this year, the government has detained more than a dozen democracy activists.

On Thursday in Ho Chi Minh City, Le Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Bac Truyen and Huynh Nguyen Dao were sentenced to three to five years in prison. They were convicted of collaborating with Thanh Cong Do, a Vietnamese-American active in a US-based Vietnamese political party. Do was expelled from Vietnam last September.

A dissident Catholic priest, Ngyuen Van Ly, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison.

The arrests and trials in Vietnam have sparked condemnation from several Western countries and human rights organizations.

A European Union diplomat who attended Friday's trial said while it was good that foreign journalists and diplomats were allowed to observe, Vietnam should not be condemning people for peacefully expressing their views.

Dai and Nhan will not be the last democracy activists in court. Lawyer and Internet dissident Tran Quoc Hien will go on trial in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday.