WASHINGTON - A Hanoi court has sentenced well-known journalist and blogger Truong Duy Nhat to 10 years in prison for defrauding the public while working for a state-owned newspaper in the central city of Danang in 2004.
Nhat's attorney, Dang Dinh Manh, told VOA's Vietnamese Service that his client did not confess to any crime during the half-day trial, which numerous international press advocacy organizations are calling a politically motivated campaign to silence the reporter.
“The conviction was completely unjust because there were so many details [prosecutors failed to prove],” said Manh, adding that Nhat used his final statement before the court to condemn that ruling as “vile political revenge.”
According to Vietnam's state-run press, Nhat, as bureau chief of the Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) newspaper in Da Nang city from 1998 to 2011, “used his influence” with the Da Nang People’s Committee in 2004 to buy public land for use as a newspaper headquarters.
According to the indictment, the land was acquired at less than its proper value, for which the state incurred a loss, Vietnamese officials say, and it is now estimated at more than $500,000.
Two of Nhat's former Dai Doan Ket colleagues, editor Le Quang Trang and deputy-editor Bui Thong Toan, also faced disciplinary hearings over the real estate transaction.
“For the same loss on the same land, it is unfair that Nhat was sentenced to 10 years in jail while his former bosses, Trang and Toan, were free from criminal charges,” Manh told VOA.
The financial losses attributed to Trang and Toan, Manh said, were assessed according to market values obtained in 2014, while those attributed to Nhat were assessed per market values obtained in 2018— a defense argument the court denied.
Second jail term
Monday's sentencing was Nhat's second in less than a decade.
In 2014, he received a two-year prison term for "abusing democratic freedoms" by posting blog entries that were critical of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party leadership.
Nhat later fled to neighboring Thailand after being released from a Vietnamese prison in 2016, when the single-party state clamped down on free expression, banning independent journalists and bloggers.
Nhat, a regular contributor to VOA sister agency Radio Free Asia (RFA), went missing from a shopping mall in Bangkok on Jan. 26, 2019, less than two days after seeking asylum in the country via the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Nhat's refugee application papers have never been made public, nor have details surrounding his arrival at Hanoi’s T-16 pre-trial detention center two days after his disappearance.
Bay Fang, president of RFA, condemned Monday's ruling.
“This miscarriage of justice only reinforces RFA's mission to provide the people of Vietnam with uncensored perspectives, and accurate news and information,” said Bang, according to a statement quoted by RFA.
U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Steve Chabot (R-OH), co-chairs of the Freedom of the Press Caucus, released a statement expressing "deep concern" over the conviction, and that fact that Nhat had been "abducted" from Thailand.
"No journalist should be subject to intimidation or prosecution for reporting or commentary," they said. "We urge Vietnamese authorities to drop their politically-motivated charges against Mr. Nhat immediately and allow him and all journalists to continue their work without intimidation.”
“Very concerned [about] Vietnam convicted blogger Truong Duy Nhat on trumped up charges, and sentenced ... to 10 years," said a Tweet by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the United States House of Representatives. "Release Truong Duy Nhat immediately!”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned Vietnamese authorities against contesting Nhat's appeal, calling for his immediate release.
“Nhat was convicted for his journalism, not the bogus charges Vietnamese authorities dreamt up to silence his critical voice,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. "Vietnam must stop jailing journalists on arbitrary and trumped-up charges.”
In 2019, CPJ's annual index of jailed reporters called Vietnam "Asia’s second-worst jailer after China, with 12 behind bars."
Nhat's daughter, Thuc Doan Truong, who spoke with CPJ via private messenger, says her father intends to appeal the verdict.
“No matter how long they want to imprison my dad, I’m sure that he did nothing wrong,” Truong told CPJ. “[Today’s sentencing] is just an excuse for them to stop him from writing critical articles.“
“Nhat, a Vietnamese journalist who was kidnapped while seeking asylum in Thailand and brought back to Vietnam ... has been punished for his independence and professionalism as a journalist," said a statement from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF.
RSF ranks Vietnam 176th out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
This story originated in VOA's Vietnamese Service.