WASHINGTON - A Vietnamese court sentenced an activist to seven years in prison Wednesday over her Facebook posts criticizing economic and cyber security laws, the government’s handling of the pandemic, and environmental issues.
A court in the southern province of Hau Giang convicted Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, an aquaculture engineer and environmental activist, of “distorting and smearing the honor of the leaders of the Party and State,” her defense lawyer told VOA.
Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, 39, was arrested on April 18 on accusations of making and sharing information “for the purpose of opposing the State of Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” She also was accused of criticizing measures to deal with COVID-19 and criticizing the party leadership and local police by posting poems her father composed.
“Both of the defense lawyers provided solid arguments, but the court ignored them and awarded a harsh sentence of seven years in prison to our client, a single mother with a young child who raised her voice about environmental, social issues with positive and constructive attitudes,” one of her lawyers, Trinh Vinh Phuc, told VOA.
“There is nothing wrong with what she wrote on her Facebook pages, except the language is rather strong,” the lawyer said.
Thuy, an advocate for freedom of expression and environmental rights, turned to Facebook to express her views on political issues in 2016, after the Formosa environmental disaster, in which toxic waste from a factory polluted more than 200 kilometers of the coastline.
She used the platform to discuss issues deemed sensitive in Vietnam, including proposed laws on special economic zones and cybersecurity, as well as environmental issues in her hometown of Hau Giang, according to Amnesty International.
Before her arrest, Thuy had criticized the Vietnamese government about policies related to the coronavirus pandemic, including a decision to not shut the border with China.
Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Vietnam, with 65 million users: the seventh largest number of users worldwide, according to figures from market data firm Statista. Because of the restrictive media environment in Vietnam, where only state-run outlets are licensed, bloggers and journalists have flocked to the platform to be able to report more freely.
In response, Vietnam arrests those who post critical comments, or requested that Facebook and other social media platforms remove articles it deems illegal.
Thuy’s father told VOA that she denied the charges in court. Dinh Van Minh, who attended the hearing, said the accusations against Thuy, including “activities against the communist revolution, psychological warfare, causing confusion on public opinions,” were baseless.
“She was trying to join with others to create a better and more progressive country that has a cleaner environment for the next generation,” Minh told VOA, adding that Thuy denies she was targeting the regime.
State media reported that Thuy used multiple Facebook accounts to edit and share hundreds of posts that “propagandize, distort, and smear the honor of the leaders of the Party and State; provoke oppositional thoughts; spread false news” to try to cause confusion and to oppose the government.
Thuy argued that her social media posts are protected under basic rights including freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the country’s constitution and in international treaties that Vietnam has ratified, according to Minh.
The 74-year-old said he was subpoenaed to his daughter’s hearing because of his poems criticizing an anti-corruption campaign by General Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong and a police summons over his own Facebook posts. Thuy posted the poems on her Facebook page without his knowledge, Minh said.
The addition of the poems in her indictment meant the charges against Thuy were more severe, her father said.
Minh was also penalized for his poetry: authorities in August fined Minh 2.5 million Vietnamese dong (about US $108) for “scoffing and smearing the Party leader and local authorities” in his writing.
Thuy’s trial came just five days before the 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, in which top leadership for the next five years is determined. Congress begins a news session on January 25.
On the eve of her trial, John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, predicted that Thuy would be jailed for “doing what millions of people around the world do every day: posting their views on Facebook.”
“Presumably, today’s trial will be like many others before it: a pro forma ritual in which the defendant’s guilt is predetermined by the court, which is not independent but rather controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party.”
Sifton called on Vietnam to dismiss the charges and end its practice of criminalizing the “exercise of human rights.”
This article originated in VOA’s Vietnamese Service.