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Sentence Upheld for Prominent Vietnamese Dissident

Cu Huy Ha Vu (C) stands between policemen in the dock during his trial at a court in Hanoi August 2, 21, 2011
Cu Huy Ha Vu (C) stands between policemen in the dock during his trial at a court in Hanoi August 2, 21, 2011

A small group of people gathered outside Vietnam's Supreme People's Court on Tuesday to show their support for one of the country's most prominent dissidents.

Human rights lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu, 53, was in court to appeal a seven-year sentence handed down in April on charges of spreading propaganda against the state.

After a gruelling appeal hearing which lasted from 8.30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with one break, the chairman of the court said there was no basis on which to overturn the original verdict.

Police cordoned off the area surrounding the court. Only two foreign news agencies were allowed to watch the proceedings via closed circuit television and were not allowed to use recording equipment or mobile phones.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict.

"The way the party has reacted in this case," Robertson said, "indicates that there is a degree of trying to make an example of him. This sort of action by people is not going to be tolerated and I’m not surprised they have come after him this way."

Vu has maintained his innocence throughout the highly-charged court proceedings, arguing that his calls for political pluralism were not intended to undermine the government.

He said he was acting in the interest of the country and was not opposed to the communist party, only to the leadership. He said his family had made considerable sacrifices for the nation.

Vu’s father, Cu Huy Can, was a widely admired poet and member of the first provisional Cabinet established by independence leader Ho Chi Minh in 1946.

As a lawyer, Vu represented many different defendants, including Catholic parishioners who held a funeral on land claimed by the government. He was long considered safe from prosecution because of his connections to ruling party officials.

However, he angered party leaders by filing lawsuits in 2009 and 2010 against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, charging that his policies violated environmental laws and the constitution. The courts rejected the cases and Vu was arrested late last year during a crackdown on dissidents ahead of a ruling party congress in January.

Dung was elected to a new five-year term as prime minister last week.

Robertson said any reduction in sentence would be seen as a loss of political will by the Vietnamese Communist Party to harshly punish a well-connected critic speaking truth to power.

"Whether it’s directed by the prime minister or coming from the Ministry of Public Security, it doesn’t really matter," Robertson said. "What is clear is this is a very influential person who the government has decided is dangerous."

Vu said the decision was a form of revenge against him but he was willing to sacrifice himself for his country.

During the original trial in April, one of Vu’s lawyers was ejected from the court room after demanding he be shown the full indictment. The other three defense lawyers walked out afterwards in protest.

The indictment was made up of Vu’s interviews with foreign media, including one with Voice of America.

Both the United States and the European Union slammed the original verdict in April.

The U.S. State Department said the conviction "raises serious questions about Vietnam's commitment to rule of law and reform," and urged the government to release Vu immediately.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.