Nguyen Huu Vinh and his editorial assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy at an appeal hearing in Hanoi on September 22. The court upheld the bloggers' anti-state convictions. (AFP/STR/Vietnam News Agency)
Nguyen Huu Vinh and his editorial assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy at an appeal hearing in Hanoi on September 22. The court upheld the bloggers' anti-state convictions. (AFP/STR/Vietnam News Agency)

Appeals court upholds anti-state prison sentences for Vietnamese bloggers

Bangkok, September 23, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemned a Vietnamese appellate court ruling yesterday to uphold the convictions on anti-state charges of two independent bloggers.

Nguyen Huu Vinh, founder of the Ba Sam (Talking Nonsense) news website and aggregator, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, his editorial assistant, were sentenced in a one-day trial in March to five and three years in prison respectively under Article 258 of the penal code. The anti-state 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, which is administered from outside Vietnam, reports said.

Hanoi’s Higher People’s Court reaffirmed the lower court’s ruling that the blogs had distorted the truth about Vietnamese leaders and the state, according to news reports. Presiding judge Ngo Hong Phuc ruled that “the crimes committed are serious, obviously infringing on the interests of the state” and that the prison sentences were “well-founded, in line with regulations of the law,” reports said. The original ruling found the articles had distorted the Communist Party’s policies, reduced public confidence in the party, and went against the interests of the nation, according to news reports.

“We are deeply disappointed by yet another politicized ruling against independent journalists in Vietnam,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “As Western governments rush to engage Vietnam’s communist regime, they should pause to consider the lack of progress on press freedom issues, even after years of human rights-related dialogue, and make clear that future engagement will be made contingent on the release of all imprisoned journalists.”

Both bloggers maintained their innocence during the one-day hearing. Vinh, an ex-police official and son of a former Cabinet minister, said in testimony that his conviction was not evidence-based, reports said. Loudspeakers in the media room were muted near the end of Vinh’s closing speech, moments after the blogger declared he was “absolutely innocent” and “extremely proud of my contributions to society through the last nine years, particularly the more than two years in prison,” reports said.

Defense attorneys quoted in news reports after the appeal ruling characterized the verdict as “unfair,” “undemocratic,” and “totally imposed.” Lawyers for Vinh and Thuy argued at both trials that prosecutors failed to prove the bloggers were responsible for posting the articles in question. Both bloggers have denied they were responsible. It was not immediately clear if either intends to appeal the appellate court ruling to the country’s highest court. Both were held in pre-trial detention for 22 months and are currently incarcerated at Hanoi’s B-14 detention center.

Vietnamese authorities have increasingly used Article 258 to stifle media criticism and persecute independent bloggers and journalists, according to CPJ research. The anti-state law carries maximum penalties of seven years in prison for vague charges of “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interest of the state.” Vietnam held at least six reporters behind bars, including Vinh and Thuy, on December 1, 2015, when CPJ conducted its most recent census of jailed journalists worldwide. All were convicted and detained on anti-state charges, the research shows.