A key Republican lawmaker and strong voice in Congress on human rights issues is condemning the sentencing of a leading Vietnamese dissident and four other democracy activists on charges of anti-government activities. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

A statement by Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey calls the sentencing of Father Nguyen Van Ly to an eight-year jail term "outrageous and appalling" and urges the Bush administration to immediately intervene with authorities in Hanoi to secure his release.

The 60-year-old Catholic priest and political activist was sentenced by a court in the central city of Hue after being convicted of disseminating anti-government documents and communicating with pro-democracy advocates abroad.

A Vietnamese judge also sentenced Nguyen Phong of Hue to six years in prison and Nguyen Binh Thanh to five years. Two other activists, Le Thi Le Hang and Hoang Thi Anh Dao, received suspended sentences of two years and 18 months respectively.

During the trial, which in an unusual step by authorities was observed by a foreign journalists as well as diplomats, the priest shouted denunciations of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party.

He and the four other co-defendants were not represented by lawyers, and were removed from the courtroom at one point, with Ly shouting "Vietnam practices the law of the jungle."

A little more than two weeks ago, Congressman Smith introduced a resolution in Congress condemning a crackdown on dissent launched by Vietnamese authorities earlier this year.

Smith's resolution warns that ongoing harassment, detentions and arrests will harm Vietnam's broadening ties with the United States and possibly result in Vietnam being put back on a State Department list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for severe and ongoing violations of religious freedom.

The lawmaker used a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, which took place before news of Father Ly's sentence was confirmed, to renew his assertion that granting Vietnam permanent normal trade status with the United States, has brought only stepped-up oppression.

"This is a case worthy of particular attention as the Vietnamese government audaciously resumed its past oppression of human rights, after Congress agreed to Vietnam becoming an official member of the W.T.O. [World Trade Organization] in December," he said.

The same hearing brought criticism from two former State Department human rights officials, John Shattuck and Harold Koh, of current U.S. priorities on human rights.

Koh, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, says the Bush administration needs to take a stronger stance with Hanoi on the issue.

"The human rights dialogue is a key forum in which we conduct inside-outside engagement with them, by which I mean pushing from the outside but pressing human rights through direct contact, demanding the status of particular political prisoners, and that there has to be a need to couple the economic relationship with Vietnam with greater attention to these human rights concerns," said Koh.

In his statement, Congressman Smith says the sentencing of Father Nguyen Van Ly and the four other activists shows that reforms in Vietnam are, in his words, "nothing more than smoke and mirrors".

Smith is calling on the Bush administration to tell Hanoi that persecution of political activists is unacceptable and to press for the immediate release of Father Ly and other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.

After Friday's sentencing, a U.S. diplomat who had observed the trial read a statement calling on Vietnamese authorities to allow individuals to peacefully exercise their legitimate rights to freedom of speech without fear of recrimination, and expressing concern over arrests of dissidents in the government crackdown.