HANOI - A prominent rights activist in Vietnam was sentenced to three years in jail Tuesday.
Bui Thi Minh Hang is a well-known human rights activist who uses Facebook to draw attention to issues from land rights to religious and political freedom.
After a day-long trial, she was jailed for three years for disrupting public order by creating “serious obstruction to traffic.”
Two other activists also received jail time. Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh and Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Van Minh were each sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.
The three were among 21 people arrested in February as they rode motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Thap province to visit a former political prisoner. The others in the group were released the next day.
Deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said he believes the other activists were targeted to divert attention from Hang.
"At the end of the day, they have clearly decided that she is someone they need to go after," Robertson said. "I would speculate that perhaps these other persons being detained along with her are essentially persons to allow authorities to assert that they are not just going after her, but they are going after other people as well."
Several Hang supporters who travelled to attend the trial at Dong Thap Provincial People’s Court in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta were detained Tuesday.
Le Hoang, who traveled from Hanoi, was being held at the local police station. He said while he and a group of people stood on the pavement, a police bus arrived to take them to the station. He said about 30 people were detained, some in Ho Chi Minh City, and some at guest houses.
At least 63 people were imprisoned for peaceful political expression in Vietnam in 2013, according to Human Rights Watch. The government says only those who break the law have been jailed, not people who peacefully express their views.
Robertson views the charges of obstructing traffic against Hang as an attempt to duck international criticism.
"These are charges which the authorities brought to try and, I think, diminish international condemnation of these charges," he said. "It becomes easier to say public disorder was the issue there, rather than say using democratic freedoms violate the interests of the state."
The U.S. Embassy expressed deep concern about the sentencing, and called the use of public disorder laws to imprison government critics for peacefully expressing their political views “alarming”.
The statement said, “This conviction appears to be inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression and Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and commitments reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”