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Activists: Arrest of Vietnam Rights Lawyer a Misstep

FILE - Nguyen Van Dai, right, testifies in this May 2013 file photo, originally taken from TV footage. The well-known Vietnamese human rights lawyer was arrested Wednesday on anti-state "propaganda" charges.

A well-known Vietnamese human rights lawyer was arrested Wednesday on anti-state "propaganda" charges, the latest incident in what rights groups are calling an alarming crackdown on government critics.

Nguyen Van Dài's arrest came 10 days after he and three colleagues were brutally assaulted by 20 unknown men wielding sticks. The attack took place shortly after the activists had held a small workshop on human rights

A U.N. human rights official condemned the attack, the latest documented assault on Vietnamese rights advocates over the past 18 months, and called for a full airing of activists' allegations that the incident was carried out by plainclothes police officers.

According to a statement by the police-run Ministry of Public Security, Dài was taken into custody and charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code, which has frequently been used to imprison peaceful activists and human rights defenders.

Officials have not offered any other comment on the case.

Home search, arrest

Rights activist Pham Ba Hai, a close friend of Dài, said the arrest came after search warrants were issued for Dài's house.

"They confiscated many of Dài's assets,” Hai said, “including laptops, cellphones, USBs, CDs, books on human rights, a number of T-shirts with human rights logos, and four envelopes containing money, which is the fund Dài used to support relatives of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam."

Dài's personal assistant was also arrested after her home was searched, Hai said.

Authorities in Hanoi have long been accused of using vague laws, such as Article 88, to crack down on bloggers and other activists who have become more popular through the Internet and social media, which are heavily used in Vietnam.

Dài, the 47-year-old founder of the dissident Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, finished serving a four-year sentence for anti-state propaganda in 2011.

‘No real movement forward’

Various rights organizations immediately responded to the latest charges, calling them a political and ethical miscalculation for Vietnam and proof of its spurious commitment to human rights.

London-based Amnesty International issued a statement calling for Dài's release. Reporters Without Borders echoed similar sentiments.

"Dài is a brave and passionate activist who helps raise awareness domestically and internationally about human rights violations in a country that tolerates no dissent," said Benjamin Ismaïl of Reporters Without Borders, who called Hanoi's policies counterproductive. "They can't win the game — one blogger arrested; 10 more will emerge."

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says Dài's arrest contrasts sharply with sweeping reforms, including increased support for gay, lesbian and transgender rights.

"It tells us that Vietnam hasn't really changed very much and that its government is still unable to deal with criticism in any forms," Dietz said, calling news of the arrest "distressing" for those anticipating further change. "What we're seeing is no real movement forward out of the authoritarian ways."

Dài, who founded the Brotherhood for Democracy in 2013, faces between three and 20 years in prison if convicted.

This story was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.