Vietnamese bloggers imprisoned for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’

Bangkok, March 23, 2016 – The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns a Hanoi court’s sentencing today of two Vietnamese bloggers to prison terms on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms.”

In a one-day trial, Hanoi’s People’s Court sentenced Nguyen Huu Vinh, founder of the news website and aggregator Ba Sam, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, his editorial assistant, to five and three years respectively under article 258 of the Penal Code, which carries maximum penalties of seven years in jail for “abusing democratic freedoms,” according to press reports. Both bloggers were held for more than 22 months in pre-trial detention. It wasn’t clear if the time they already served would count against the sentences the court imposed today. They were taken back to the B-14 detention center in Hanoi following the verdict.

“Today’s harsh convictions of bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “If Vietnam wants to be viewed as a responsible member of the international community and a reliable partner in multilateral agreements, these bogus anti-state convictions must stop immediately.”

The charges stemmed from 24 entries posted to Ba Sam and two other blogs Vinh established: Dan Quyen (Citizen’s Rights) and Chep Su Viet (Writing Vietnamese History). Both blogs were carried on Ba Sam‘s site, reports said. Judge Nguyen Van Pho ruled that the articles in question had distorted the ruling Communist Party’s policies, reduced public trust in the party, and went against the interests of the nation, according to news reports.

The bloggers’ lawyer, Ha Huy San, told The Associated Press before the ruling that both had denied the charges, claiming they had “no relations” to the postings in question. It was not immediately clear if either Vinh or Thuy intend to appeal the verdict. Vietnamese authorities have increasingly used Article 258 to stifle media criticism and persecute independent bloggers and journalists, according to CPJ research.

Vinh, a former police officer, established Ba Sam (Talking Nonsense) as an independent news platform in September 2007. The blog posted links to state-run Vietnamese media, often with critical commentary added by the blog’s administrators, as well as translated versions of foreign news reports on political, economic, and social issues, according to press accounts. The site also published articles and commentary from local activists and dissidents, the reports said.

It was unclear if Vinh was still actively running Ba Sam at the time of his and Thuy’s arrests in May 2014. In September 2012, Vinh announced he would end his direct involvement with the blog due to increased pressure by the authorities, reports said. Due to frequent cyber-attacks against Ba Sam, the blog has appeared at different Web addresses, reports said. The blog is still operational, through an administrator based in the United States, reports said.

Vinh’s health has declined while in detention, according to a petition and separate appeal for action filed with authorities by his wife, Le Thi Minh Ha. After a prison visit last October, she said that Vinh had developed a rash all over his body, a condition she speculated was symptomatic of liver and blood disorders caused by lack of exposure to sunlight.

Vietnam held at least six reporters behind bars, including Vinh and Thuy, on December 1, 2015, when CPJ conducted its most recent census of journalists imprisoned around the world.