WASHINGTON - An appeals court in Vietnam has upheld a lower court decision to sentence a music teacher to 11 years in prison for criticizing the government on Facebook.
Nguyen Nang Tinh, 45, was found guilty of "making and spreading anti-state information and materials" in a one-day trial at the People's Court in the north central province of Nghe An in November.
On Tuesday, the Council of Justices of the Supreme People’s Court upheld that decision at a final appeals hearing.
The decision comes amid increased pressure on Facebook to comply with Vietnam’s censorship demands and a spate of similar charges filed against people who used the platform to criticize Hanoi’s pandemic response online.
With limited space for independent journalism, many bloggers and journalists use Facebook and social media to report on important issues. In January, the government accused Facebook of violating the law by allowing users to post anti-government comments.
Facebook’s local servers in Vietnam were then taken offline until the U.S.-based company agreed to substantially increase the censorship of “anti-state” posts for local users, as Reuters reported Tuesday.
In an emailed statement, Facebook confirmed it had reluctantly complied with the government’s request to “restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal.”
In its 2020 annual World Press Freedom Index, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said bloggers are a primary source of independently reported information.
"The level of terror has risen sharply in the past three years, with many bloggers being jailed or expelled in connection with their posts," said RSF, which added that a 2019 cybercrime law requires foreign online platforms to locally store Vietnamese user data and surrender it to authorities on demand.
Tinh, who teaches music at a provincial college, has said the Facebook account does not belong to him and that officials are confusing him with an account that happens to bear his name.
"The prosecutors stuck to the idea that the Facebook user named Nguyen Nang Tinh and my client Nguyen Nang Tinh are the same person," Tinh's lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng told Reuters in November.
Police arrested Tinh in May 2019, when they claim he was found writing and posting anti-state messages and videos on Facebook, which is widely used in Vietnam and serves as the main platform for e-commerce and dissent.
According to Radio Free Asia, a sister agency of VOA, Tinh had been on a hunger strike since March 13 and was not allowed to pray, read religious books or meet with Catholic priests. Tinh ended the strike on April 17, when he was notified that he would be granted the appeals hearing, according to Dang Dinh Manh, one of his defense attorneys during the appeals hearing.
Manh said his client now plans to resume the hunger strike.
Speaking with VOA's Vietnamese Service, Tinh's father, Nguyen Ngoc Dinh, praised his son's defense team for making "concretely demonstrated and convincing arguments."
During the trials, he said, his son repeatedly admitted to using a Facebook account to share stories, but only ones that were "beneficial to the country, not meant to oppose."
"He has no partisan ideology or opposition to any party," he said.
On Tuesday, Tinh's wife, who could not attend the hearing because of coronavirus quarantine rules, posted a statement on Facebook expressing strong condemnation of "the Hanoi high court in Nghe An and the detention camp for unfair treatment and wrongful conviction of my husband."
Her post echoed a broader censure of the ruling, in which numerous democracy advocates called for Tinh's immediate release.
"Teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh, a man for patriotism and national destiny, has received an unjust judgment," said dissident musician Tran Vu Anh Binh of Ho Chi Minh City via YouTube.
Tinh will be placed under house arrest for five years after serving his jail term, his lawyer said.
Two other Vietnamese nationals, both women, have been arrested on similar charges since April 10.
Police in Ninh Kieu District, Can Tho City, arrested Ma Phung Ngoc Phu, 28, on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms" under Article 331 of the Penal Code.
According to domestic media, Phu posted purportedly false articles about the coronavirus outbreak on Facebook. Online newspaper Dan tri reported that Phu allegedly created a Facebook account under the alias "James Ng" to write and share articles criticizing the government and its senior leadership.
The paper also reported that Facebook account was removed immediately after her arrest.
Activist Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, 38, was arrested Saturday for "conducting propaganda against the state" under Article 117 of the Criminal Code.
According to local television news stations, police ransacked Thuy's home during the arrest, which stems from her alleged management of "many" Facebook accounts that were used to distribute information criticizing the government and its leaders.
“Ms. Thuy participated in protests against two bills of the Special Economic Zone and Cyber Security in Saigon on June 10, 2018," according to Human Rights Defender, a journal run by Australia's University of New South Wales Human Rights Institute.
"At that time of her arrest, [she was] beaten and interrogated and eventually fined," they reported. "In recent years, she has been repeatedly harassed by local police for her Facebook posts.”
Police in Vietnam did not respond to requests for comment about allegations of violence in time for publication.
In October, a 54-year-old architect was jailed for 12 months over accusations that he uploaded anti-state posts to his Facebook account, according to police records.
In its 2020 annual World Press Freedom Index, RSF ranks Vietnam 175 out of 180 countries, in which one is considered the freest. The reports say some 25 journalists and bloggers are currently held in Vietnam’s jails, where mistreatment is common.
This story originated in VOA's Vietnamese Service ( https://www.voatiengviet.com/ ). Pete Cobus contributed reporting. Some information is from Reuters.