In further proof that irony is alive and well, Vietnam is a candidate for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2014-2016. What sort of human-rights watchdog would the government in Hanoi be? For a hint, consider the ongoing cases of three activist bloggers now facing a trial that harks back to an earlier, Orwellian century.
Nguyen Van Hai (who blogs under the pen name Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai (who blogs as Anh Ba Saigon) and Ta Phong Tan (a former police officer and Communist Party member who wrote a blog entitled “Justice and Truth”) will soon face trial for “crimes against national security.” They are all members of the Club of Free Journalists, a group founded in 2008 to call for the right to create private media outlets and promote freedom of expression and independent journalism in Vietnam. In Hanoi’s authoritarian one-party system, such peaceful activism earns a charge of “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the penal code.
The charges are unfortunately not so far out of the ordinary. Dozens of activists and bloggers have been imprisoned on similar charges in recent years. But these cases are notable for the revealingly turn they took recently.
A judge in Ho Chi Minh City closely following the case (although not presiding over it) told members of the local legal community last week that the defendants would be wise to plead guilty if they wish to avoid harsh prison sentences. While he was not speaking directly to the defendants or their lawyers, he seems to have intended for the message to get back to them, and to other potential activists, on behalf of the regime. While there is reason to believe police frequently exert similar pressure on political detainees, this appears to be the first time someone in the judiciary has adopted the same line.
If the bloggers truly were guilty, and were being tried in a fair and transparent judicial system, that would be good advice—criminal defendants often plead guilty in exchange for lighter sentences. But neither of these conditions is true in this case. Under Vietnamese law, the judge has warned, innocence will not be enough to protect the defendants if they plead not guilty and go to trial. Any defendant “stubbornly” protesting his or her innocence will bring down a longer sentence.
The judge’s explanation for the delay in starting the bloggers’ trial—it was originally supposed to have opened last week—is equally revealing. The judge suggested the delay arose because the Public Security Bureau, the People’s Procuracy (prosecutorial service) and the court haven’t yet agreed on sentences for the “offenders.” The PSB is seeking extremely harsh terms of 14-16 years for Dieu Cai, 12-14 years for Ms. Tan, and seven to nine years for the other Mr. Hai. The other branches of the “troika” are seeking lighter terms. Guilty verdicts are a foregone conclusion.
The three bloggers can see examples of what will happen if they don’t follow the judge’s advice. Pro-democracy activist Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was sentenced to 16 years in Jan. 2010 for crimes against the state—among other things, he wrote articles on the Internet calling for political reforms—after pleading not guilty. At the same trial, other activists who pleaded guilty, including human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, received terms of three-and-a-half to seven years.
If the fix is in anyway, why is the regime keen to encourage guilty pleas? Hanoi apparently believes that guilty pleas bolster its claim that there are no “political prisoners” in Vietnam since, as Hanoi argues, the defendants have admitted their guilt to serious charges.
This disparity in sentences would be no light matter in any circumstances, but the consequences are especially severe in Vietnam given the way the regime treats such political prisoners after they’re in jail. All inmates, whether political prisoners or common criminals, must pay for many basic necessities out of their own pockets, including supplements to their starvation rations. But whereas common criminals are allowed to receive at least 2 million Vietnamese dong (around $96) each month from their families, these three bloggers have been allowed no more than 500,000 dong.
That’s barely enough for minimal survival. The police-set prices in prison canteens run to 400,000 dong for a kilo of sugar, 25,000 dong for a can of condensed milk, or 300,000 dong for a pound of pork sausage.
This disparate financial treatment further undermines Hanoi’s claim that there are no political prisoners in Vietnam. In reality, everyone knows exactly why people like Dieu Cay are in jail: His activism embarrassed Hanoi and its patrons in Beijing. He was first arrested in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 after staging an anti-China demonstration during the Olympic torch relay. After imprisoning him for 30 months on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, he was re-arrested on the day of his release in October 2010 on charges of “spreading anti-socialist propaganda.” He has been detained incommunicado for the past 17 months.
Dieu Cay and the other bloggers are not guilty of any “crime” that would be recognized as such in a truly modern state. They have simply claimed the rights enshrined in Articles 69 and 53 of Vietnam’s Constitution, which guarantee freedom of expression and the right to petition the government. Hanoi should set them free. Other governments should insist Hanoi do so if it wants to assume any high-profile human-rights post at the U.N.
Mr. Ai is president of Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam.
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Asia ©2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.